Three same-sex couples and one widow filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday seeking to overturn Georgia’s constitutional amendment that defines marriage as an institution between one man and one woman.
The federal challenge marks a significant step for gay families living in the Peach State, where voters overwhelmingly approved a 2004 ban on same-sex nuptials. But it also leaves in place just four similar bans entirely untouched by legal battles. Of the 33 states that prohibit gay couples from marrying, Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota are the only ones left without a marriage equality lawsuit pending in either state or federal court.
“We thought it was really important to build on the momentum we’ve seen since Windsor,” said Tara Borelli, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, which is representing the Georgia plaintiffs. “Since that time, 11 out of 11 federal courts have ruled on the side of marriage equality for same-sex couples. It’s time to bring marriage equality to Georgia.”
In United States v. Windsor, the nation’s highest court gutted a federal law that defined marriage as an institution between one man and one woman, finding that it violated the basic equality and human dignity of gay people. In fact, Justice Kennedy used the word “dignity” 11 times in his 23-page opinion for the majority. No argument for prohibiting gay couples from marrying has survived in state or federal court since.
“It’s helpful to build on earlier successes, including a number of neighbors in the South – like Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, and Kentucky,” said Borelli. “Put all together, [these decisions] make an overwhelming case on the side of marriage equality for same-sex couples.”
Building off the Windsor ruling and the lawsuits it inspired, the Georgia complaint argues that there is no adequate justification for treating same-sex couples differently, and that the state’s ban violates gay people’s fundamental right to marry. It too uses the word “dignity” several times.“We need the protection that marriage affords,” said Christopher Inniss, one of the plaintiffs, to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We own a home together, we own a business together and we are raising our son, Jonathan, together,” he said of his partner, Shelton Stroman. “We have done everything we can to protect and take responsibility for our family but marriage is the only way to ensure that we are treated as the family that we are.”
The seven plaintiffs are suing the state registrar, a clerk of the Gwinnett County Probate Court and a Fulton County Probate Court judge in their official capacities. Attorney General Sam Olens is planning to defend Georgia’s marriage law, his spokesperson has said.