Let freedom ring

Alia Carlton

Let freedom ring

Lambda Legal sues Georgia for same-sex marriage rights

February 3, 2015

They were married in New York City on Valentine’s Day, blissfully unaware of the fact that their lives would cave in on them only months later.

Jennifer Sisson lost wife Pam Drenner to ovarian cancer in Mar. of this year, following their wedding the year before. Hours after Drenner’s death, Sisson discovered that their marriage, legal in multiple states, wouldn’t be recognized on Drenner’s death certificate.

The event drove her to take action. She joined forces with Lambda Legal, a national organization fighting for the civil rights of the LGBTQ community, and four same-sex couples to file a class-action lawsuit against the state of Ga.

Simply put, the plaintiffs want their marriages recognized by their home state, and are willing to sue to get there.

Beth Littrell, Senior Staff Attorney for Lambda Legal, says the organization frequently experiences legal battles like this.

“Across the country, we have been involved with [removing] challenging laws that ban same-sex couples from getting married and keep them from having their marriages recognized,” Littrell said.

According to Littrell, a successful lawsuit would have a substantial effect on the state.

“It would strike down all laws that exclude same-sex marriage. We would also get a law that says that discriminatory marriage laws are unconstitutional in [multiple] ways,” she said.

Littrell notes that the diverse group of people involved improves the case’s general reception.

“Having these loving, committed couples of different ethnicities and genders, all doing different things to assist their communities, is nothing but helpful,” she said.

While considering what challenges Lambda Legal and the plaintiffs face, Littrell brought up what she considers an unusual situation.

“The judge that this case is in front of … is described as conservative, and was appointed by George W. Bush,” Littrell said. According to her, this could present a challenge.

Not only are the plaintiffs diverse in their ethnicities and genders, but also in what drives them to fight for marriage recognition.

Michael Bishop, is one of the cases’ nine plaintiffs, and a father of two. He and partner Shane Thomas have been together for nine years, and adopted their children four years into their relationship.

They are fathers to Thomas, five years old, and Mariella, four years old.

Bishop says it’s not only his relationship that fuels the couple’s involvement in the case, but their children as well.

“Our focus is our kids and on their lives,” Bishop said. “So we [concentrate] every day on making sure that their lives are secure and nurturing.”

Bishop believes that secure life comes partially from legal recognition of marriage. When asked to summarize what the case means to him, Bishop said, “Fundamentally, this is about protecting families. And my family is worth protecting.”

Ken Jackson, a guidance counselor at Decatur, has his own personal investment in the fight for marriage recognition.

“I met my now-husband eighteen years ago in Florida,” Jackson said. “A little over a year ago, with some of the states now allowing marriage … we decided to get married in New York.”

They ended up having two ceremonies, a small one on a bridge in Central Park, and a larger one here in Ga.

Jackson recalls his wedding weekend fondly. He and his husband planned the ceremony for Easter Sunday.

New York City’s annual Easter Parade occurred during the ceremony, so Central Park buzzed with activity. After the vows, their small ceremony grew bigger in a memorable way.

“It was a beautiful spring day … we just stood on the bridge and started the wedding ceremony,” Jackson said.

Focused on his husband, Jackson didn’t notice the throngs of people around them.

“We went through our vows and finished and there was a huge crowd standing around us, all taking pictures and applauding,” he said.

A mother approached Jackson and his partner and said she “really wanted her kids to experience” the ceremony.

Jackson is looking forward to the day when he will be considered legally married in Ga., and wholeheartedly supports the efforts of Lambda Legal and the plaintiffs.

Roy Sanders and Charles Bailey, parents of sophomore McCrae Sanders, also endorse the case issued against the “discriminatory” Ga. laws.

“The efforts of Lambda Legal and individuals fighting for equal treatment under the law are absolutely making a difference,” Bailey said. “That is evident from the fact that same-sex marriage is now legal in the majority of [the U.S.].”

Bailey and Sanders do not physically participate in any protests or rallies against the state, but consider their way of living openly as a same-sex couple a contribution to the movement. The couple had an unrecognized wedding ceremony while living in Tenn. and look forward to the day when they can legally wed.

Like many other same-sex couples, the marriage ban affects the Sanders family financially.

“Under Georgia law, Roy and I do not qualify as spouses for purposes of obtaining family health insurance,” Bailey said.

Bailey and Sanders have had to pay more for filing individual state tax returns, something that they would not have to do if their marriage were recognized.

Lambda Legal’s class-action lawsuit is still pending, despite having been filed in April.

The most recent update to the case is that “the defendant [state Registrar Deborah Aderhold] filed a motion to dismiss that would keep the plaintiffs from even having their day in court,” Littrell said.

After this, the plaintiffs responded to the motion to dismiss. The case was then put on hold.

“We can’t file anything, they can’t file anything, until the motion to dismiss is decided on,” Littrell said.

The state isn’t backing down.

“They are digging their heels in and fighting this lawsuit to the greatest extent they can,” Littrell said.

Even if a ruling isn’t made in favor of the couples, Lambda Legal is determined to continue pursuing equality.

“If the judge is inclined to rule against us, this case will prevail. We will appeal,” Littrell said.

In spite of the possibility of a ruling against Lambda Legal, Littrell remains very hopeful, saying that she is “absolutely optimistic” about the ruling.

“The tide has turned nationally. I think that judges are aware that the majority of the country is embracing equality,” she said.

Her wish is that the rest of the country will follow suit soon.
“Striking down the marriage bans just makes sense,” Littrell said.

Lambda Legal is determined to continue the fight for marriage equality, fulfilling their newfound motto: “we’re not done yet.”

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