OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A civil liberties organization sued the Nebraska prison system Tuesday on behalf of two inmates who say their constitutional rights are being violated because they haven’t been allowed to marry each other.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in Lancaster County District court on behalf of Paul Gillpatrick, 42, and Niccole Wetherell, 33, who are housed in separate state prisons.
The two met through a mutual friend in the 1990s and have been engaged for more than two years, according to the ACLU, but have been unable to marry because prison officials have been unwilling to transport either of them to the other prison for a wedding ceremony — even though Gillpatrick and Wetherell have offered to pay the costs of transportation.
The ACLU also said the couple would be willing to participate in a marriage ceremony via video conferencing, so neither would have to be transported. However, state law requires couples marrying to be together in the presence of a minister or magistrate.
“At its most basic, this case is about challenging the government’s authority to impose an unnecessary and unduly restrictive limitation upon the rights of Nebraska inmates to marry,” said Amy Miller, an attorney with ACLU Nebraska.
Not allowing inmates to marry violates a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling recognizing that inmates have a right to marry under the U.S. Constitution’s due process clause, the ACLU said in a written statement. That ruling struck down a Missouri prison policy that allowed inmates to marry only with permission from the warden.
Gillpatrick is serving 55 to 90 years in the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln for second-degree murder. He is eligible for parole in 2039. Wetherell, 33, is serving life at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York for first-degree murder.
Dawn-Renee Smith, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, said Tuesday that she could not comment on pending lawsuits, but said, “Public safety is the ultimate concern in this case.”
She also referred to the prison system’s written policy on inmate marriages, which says, among other things, that inmates will be allowed to marry “unless the warden finds that the marriage presents a threat to security or order of the institution or to public safety.”
The policy also says that Nebraska prisons will arrange space and time for marriage ceremonies, but will not transport inmates from one institution to another for a marriage ceremony.
The lawsuit is seeking a declaration that the Nebraska prison system’s policy is unconstitutional and an injunction to block enforcement of the “in person” requirement when Gillpatrick and Wetherell re-submit their prison paperwork seeking to marry.
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