Earlier this morning, Lambda Legal introduced the plaintiffs and officially announced the filing of their class-action lawsuit which aims to bring marriage equality to the state of Georgia

Lambda Legal attorneys Beth Littrell and Tara Borelli were joined by Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham.

“We filed this lawsuit today simply put, because marriage matters,” Littrell said. “It matters to our plaintiffs, it matters to their children, it matters to thousands of same-sex couples across Georgia who are married, want to be married or may some day need to be married.”

Many of the plaintiffs were clearly emotional throughout the press conference, with several tearing up.

“It is a travesty that we put loving couples through this,” Graham said. “Forcing people to sue for the right to love. Forcing people to sue for the right to protect their children. Forcing people to sue for the right to make that basic life choice—the freedom to marry the person you love.”

Avery Chandler (left) and her partner Rayshawn Chandler are Atlanta police officers. (photo by Dyana Bagby)

Rayshawn Chandler (left) and her partner Avery Chandler are Atlanta police officers. (photo by Dyana Bagby)

‘THIS IS WAY BIGGER THAN US’

Plaintiff Shelton Stroman, who is joined in the suit by his partner Christopher Inniss, spoke about trying to explain to their nine-year-old son why his fathers cannot marry.

“When we ask him does he understands this, he says he does,” Stroman said. “But he replies with this famous quote from Dr. Seuss: ‘A person’s a person no matter how small.’”

Avery Chandler is a U.S. Army reservist who is filing with her partner Rayshawn Chandler, both of whom are Atlanta police officers.

When asked how hard of a decision it was to join the lawsuit, Avery said, “It was difficult at first, but this is way bigger than us and why not us? It was time to step forward.”

And as to the response from their fellow APD officers about the suit, Avery shrugged and drew laughter from the assembled press corps saying, “We’ll know in a little while.”

Plaintiff Jennifer Sisson was sadly not able to share the day with her partner Pamela Drenner, who passed away last month after a long battle with ovarian cancer. When Sisson and her son went to make funeral arrangements, they were told they could only choose the marital status of “never married,” “widowed” or “divorced” even though the two were legally married in New York the previous year. The death certificate eventually read “never married,” which caused tremendous pain to Sisson.

“It gives me a different ending to a very long struggle,” Sisson explained in response to why she joined the suit. “The best way I can honor her life and the love we had is to stand up. So that’s why I’m here.”

‘A MASTERFUL PIECE OF LEGAL STRATEGY’

As for what’s next, Lambda Legal’s Littrell said the courts are unpredictable. The suit will be presented to the defendants, and Littrell mentioned the possibility that they could decide not to defend it.

Constitutional scholar Anthony Kreis, who calls the case “a masterful piece of legal strategy,” reviewed the suit and says he suspects at least one of the defendants may elect not to defend the constitutionality of the marriage ban.

“Lambda picked an excellent cross-section of Plaintiffs who are sympathetic, but also illustrate the full array of daily struggles same-sex couples endure because they’re denied marriage rights,” Kreis tells GA Voice. “Ultimately, this is a strong first step toward securing the basic constitutional and human rights guarantees that are owed to every family in Georgia.”

Kreis also notes the importance of which judge is assigned to the case, pointing out that of the active judges in the Northern District of Georgia, five are Democratic appointees and three are Republican appointees, and of the nine judges on the court that have senior status (who are retired but hear cases on a limited basis), seven are Democratic appointees and two are Republican appointees.

“While there is no doubt that state and federal judges across ideological lines have struck down discriminatory marriage laws just like Georgia’s,” Kreis says, “the landscape in this court is favorable.”

For her part, Littrell is focused on the endgame.

“While our system of government hasn’t always gotten it right along the way, we get it right in the end,” Littrell said. “For same-sex couples in Georgia, the end is in sight.”

GA Voice has been reaching out to state elected officials, the defendants and political candidates running in this year’s elections to get their positions on the case.

Lauren Kane, communications director for Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, says, “The Attorney General will fulfill his constitutional obligation to defend Georgia law.”

THE PLAINTIFFS

  • Christopher Inniss and Shelton Stroman of Snellville, together for 13 years and owners of Snellville Pet Resort. They adopted a child who is now in third grade. Because the fathers have different last names, there is often confusion with teachers as well as physicians. When Stroman tried to legally change his last name, he was “berated” in court by the judge for wanting to share the last name of another man, the lawsuit states.
  • Michael Bishop, 55, and Shane Thomas, 44, who have been together for eight years. They have two young children. They filed for a marriage license in Fulton County Probate Court on April 10 and were denied.
  • Lesbian couple Rayshawn Chandler and Avery Chandler of Jonesboro, both of whom are officers with the Atlanta Police Department. Avery is a member of the U.S. Army reserve. The two legally married in Connecticut on June 26, 2013, and they are planning to have children, according to the suit.
  • Jennifer Sisson, 34, whose wife, Pamela Drenner, 49, died after a long battle with ovarian cancer on March 1. The couple legally married in New York on Feb. 14, 2013. When Sisson and her 18-year-old son went to make funeral arrangements in Georgia, they were told, under Georgia law, Sisson could only choose Drenner’s marital status as “never married,” “widowed,” or “divorced.” The death certificate eventually read “never married,” causing tremendous pain to Sissons, according the lawsuit.

THE DEFENDANTS

  • Deborah Aderhold, State Registrar and Director of Vital Records. She is being sued for denying an amendment be made to Drenner’s death certificate recognizing her as legally married in another state.
  • Brook Davidson, Clerk of Gwinnett County Probate Court.
  • Judge Pinkie Toomer, judge of Fulton County Probate Court. Toomer was asked by Jane Morrison in 2013 to swear her in as Fulton County State Court Judge. Morrison was the first openly gay person elected as a Fulton County State Court Judge.
  • Davidson and Toomer are sued in their capacity for denying marriage licenses to the gay plaintiffs seeking them, therefore denying them their constitutional rights, the suit states.

psaunders@thegavoice.com | @patricksaunders

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