Public Safety & Justice

Georgia Couple Sues to Overturn State's Gay Marriage Ban

by | April 23, 2014
 

By Bill Rankin

Their stories sound familiar, but they are new to Georgia's federal courts.

On Tuesday, three couples and a widow challenged the state's 10-year-old ban against same-sex marriage. The ban denies them the respect, dignity and legitimacy that marriage gives to different-sex couples and their children, and it denies them equal protection under the law, their lawsuit said.

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said through a spokeswoman that the state will defend the constitutional amendment, which was overwhelmingly approved by Georgia voters in 2004.

The plaintiffs are two Atlanta police officers; the owners of a Snellville pet daycare center; an attorney and a Realtor; and a woman whose longtime partner died in March. Standing together at a Tuesday news conference, the seven litigants, some wearing wedding rings, some wiping tears from their eyes, said they were private people who would not normally seek out the spotlight.

"But this is way bigger than us," said Atlanta Police Officer Avery Chandler, whose marriage to fellow officer Rayshawn Chandler in Connecticut last year is not recognized in Georgia. "Why not us? It is time to step forward."

Others framed the lawsuit as less an attack on Georgia law than as an attack on marriage itself.

The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Bill Duffey, a former U.S. attorney in Atlanta who was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2003.

Georgia was one of the last states in the nation where no one had filed a legal challenge to the marriage ban. There may be a good reason for that, legal experts said.

In 2004, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sets precedent for Georgia, upheld a Florida law that banned the adoption of children by gays and lesbians. A three-judge panel ruled unanimously that Florida had a legitimate interest in encouraging the best family structure possible by trying to place adoptive children in "homes that have both a mother and a father."

Lambda Legal's Beth Littrell, the lead attorney in the suit challenging Georgia's marriage ban, acknowledged that precedent poses challenges.

"But we believe we have arguments to overcome that," she said. "Momentum is behind us. There is an unbroken string of successes in the federal courts. ... It's discrimination, pure and simple, and it's wrong."

Lawsuit is a 'threat to marriage'

The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of all gay and lesbian couples who want to get married in Georgia. It was filed against State Registrar and Director of Records Deborah Aderhold, Fulton County Probate Court Judge Pinkie Toomer and Brook Davidson, the clerk of the Gwinnett County Probate Court.

Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and who now chairs the Faith & Freedom Coalition, said Georgia voters have said they believe marriage is between a man and a woman.

"It is demeaning to argue that the voters do not have the right to express their will, and this latest attempt to bypass the legislative and referendum process for amending Georgia's Constitution and accomplish by judicial fiat what could not be won at the ballot box is a threat not only to marriage but to respect for the rule of law," he said.

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said the census shows there are 21,000 to 22,000 same-sex couples in Georgia and more than one-quarter of them are raising children.

"We don't know how many of these couples are legally married elsewhere but the one thing we do know is that none of those couples have their marriages ... recognized under the laws of the state of Georgia," he said. "It is a travesty that we put loving couples through this."

'Never married' on death certificate

Atlanta police officers Rayshawn Chandler, 29, and Avery Chandler, 30, of Jonesboro, first met at the police academy four years ago and have been together three years. They were married last year in Connecticut, one of 17 states that allow same-sex marriages.

Avery Chandler, a sergeant in U.S. Army reserve, expects to be deployed to Kuwait in July. The suit notes that, if Avery were killed in the line of duty, Rayshawn would not qualify for state survivor's benefits because of the marriage ban.

Another plaintiff, Jennifer Sisson, 34, of Decatur, joined the litigation after her 49-year-old spouse, Pamela Drenner, died March 1 of ovarian cancer.

The couple was married Valentine's Day in 2013 at New York's City Hall. But two months later, Drenner's cancer, first diagnosed in 2008, reappeared. When Drenner's health deteriorated, Sisson took a leave of absence from Delta Air Lines to become a full-time caretaker.

After Drenner died, the state refused to recognize their marriage on the death certificate. Sisson burst into tears when the funeral home informed her that the only options she could choose for Drenner's marital status were "never married," "widowed" or "divorced," the suit said.

When Sisson received the death certificate from the state, it listed Drenner as "never married," the suit said.

"I think this could give me a different ending to a very long struggle," Sisson said Tuesday of her decision to join the suit. 'I just believe in what the Bible says'

Lead plaintiffs Chris Inniss, a 39-year-old veterinarian, and Shelton Stroman, 42, own a Snellville pet daycare center. They have been together 13 years and are raising a 9-year-old son who wants them to be married.

"Marriage is the only word that truly describes the commitment that we feel that we are entitled to," Inniss said. "That's the only way we feel like we will be treated equally like all other families out there."

Plaintiffs Michael Bishop, 50, and Shane Thomas, 44, of Atlanta, are raising a 5-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. Bishop is general counsel for AT&T Intellectual Property Corp. and Thomas is a Realtor who served in the Air National Guard.

"We're private people very focused on raising our children," Bishop said Tuesday. "But we know that people make change."

Former Republican State Sen. Mike Crotts, who sponsored the bill setting up the constitutional amendment in 2004, said he knew the issue would resurface again in the courts.

"It's their right, but I'm a Christian and I just believe in what the Bible says," he said. "If an individual wants to make that choice, to get married, that's fine. But I don't have to agree with it."

(c)2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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