Advocates detail pathway to marriage equality in Georgia

With a favorable result in Oklahoma Tuesday, that leaves 42 active marriage equality lawsuits working their way through 22 different states across the country, including several in the south. But none of those cases are in Georgia. Georgia Equality and Lambda Legal hosted a marriage town hall at the Rush Center recently to address why, and to inform the public on the effects of DOMA and the path to marriage equality in Georgia.

A crowd of onlookers packed the meeting space Jan. 9 while many more joined online to hear from Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham, Lambda Legal staff attorney Tara Borelli and HLM Financial Group’s certified tax preparer Lynn Pasqualetti.

Bottom line: it’s going to cost about $10 million in the next three to five years to get marriage equality passed in the Peach State, according to Georgia Equality. The state’s largest LGBT advocacy group is currently trying to raise $50,000 to launch its “Why Marriage Matters Georgia Campaign” in collaboration with the national Freedom to Marry organization.

Borelli cited the many successes as of late, including a statistic that now 41 percent of the population of the U.S. lives in a state with either marriage equality or broad protections with civil unions or domestic partnerships. But one decision is making Lambda Legal and others somewhat gun-shy about filing a case in Georgia.

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The 11th circuit court covers Georgia, Florida and Alabama. A 2004 case in the 11th circuit in Florida challenged Florida’s gay adoption ban. The case was lost, and it’s been used as a roadblock to marriage equality cases ever since.

“The result is flat wrong but it is the law,” Borelli told the town hall group. “It’s a pretty daunting obstacle in terms of a suit here.”

The same “gay people are bad parents” rationale was later used in an August 2012 case in Hawaii, although the legislature later legalized same-sex marriage in 2013.

“This is a primary argument [marriage equality opponents] make in every single one of these cases and that judge bought it even though the research, the science, the literature and the consensus of every major, medical, behavioral, mental health organization is that we make equally fine parents,” Borelli said.

It’s decisions like these that continue to make Lambda Legal hesitant to file suit in Georgia and other states unless the case is extremely strong.

“Cases, when not done well, don’t just die on the vine,” Borelli explained. “Both the good and the bad cases reverberate around. So that’s why we care so much about what gets filed. Any one decision might have an effect on the others.”

Lambda Legal also doesn’t want people to get too comfortable in assuming one of these 42 cases will make it to the Supreme Court and cause marriage equality to become the law of the land nationwide.

“There is no guarantee about what the answer is, there is no guarantee about when we will get it,” she says. “We absolutely cannot give up on these current cases.”

The cost of doing business

“We need an infrastructure for marriage,” Graham told the assembled group. “We have to build a political movement and a campaign toward a specific goal.”

Graham revealed the gameplan at the town hall, mentioning four vital parts of that infrastructure that Georgia Equality is currently working on, including making schools safer for the LGBT community, passing a fair employment practices act, electing enough fair legislators and creating a progressive infrastructure.

“We will lose and we will lose badly” if we go into another ballot fight with $100,000 and a couple of hundred volunteers (as we did in the 2004 marriage amendment fight), says Graham. “76 percent of the public voted against us and we thought we were waging a great campaign.”

Georgia Equality will also be doing more polling, including a flash poll to be released this year on Georgians attitudes toward marriage equality. A similar poll in 2012 showed only 27 percent support, but the number jumped to 39 percent support from respondents under 39.

A Georgia Social Issues Poll from May of last year showed 29 percent supporting and 61 percent opposing, with 48 percent support among Democrats and 55 percent support among independents who lean Democratic.

But Graham was most interested in the findings of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll done recently which showed 48 percent of Georgia voters supporting same-sex marriage (with 30 percent having strong support) — far off from the figures of other polls. The number jumped to 59 percent support among those making $100,000 or more and to 64 percent support among those 18-39

”This is what we’re shooting for in public polls across the board,” Graham says, citing at least a 60 percent threshold to hit in states that have won marriage equality at the ballot.

There is also strong support for an employment non-discrimination act, which Georgia Equality says is polling at 71 percent support right now.

Graham says the goal is to gain marriage equality in Georgia in the next three to five years, but that it will come at a cost. Factoring in the cost of marriage equality campaigns in other states and the relative sizes of the Georgia compared to those states, the cost could run in excess of $10 million for a successful campaign.

The barriers to raising that kind of cash are many, not the least of which being that Georgia Equality’s budget is only $300,000 and that, shockingly, less than 3 percent of national LGBT philanthropy comes to southern states.

“You need to mobilize tens of thousands of people to be able to have hundreds of thousands and millions of conversations to be able to win this in Georgia,” Graham said.

DOMA brings joy, tangled tax web

When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, it led to an outpouring of cheers from the LGBT community, but it has also led to a lot of headaches in states with gay marriage bans come tax season.

If you’re married in another state where same-sex marriage is legal, but you live in Georgia, there are various tax scenarios you have to consider.

“Don’t automatically assume you should file a joint return,” HLM Financial’s Pasqualetti said.

If you file a joint federal return, consider the first box on the state return which asks for your federal adjusted income. To get the correct number in that box, you’ll have to end up filing the joint federal return, two federal returns recast as single for the state of Georgia, and two state returns.

“[Accountants have] been trying to figure out how to bill for the extra work that’s going to go into it,” Pasqualetti says. “If you use a high-end tax software, they’ve made provisions to recast all of those.” She says many accountants are going with a flat rate, with a price anywhere from $100 to $500 per couple. The process gets even more difficult if you work in multiple states.

In the meantime, marriage equality advocates continue to move the chess pieces into place to figure out the final move that will legalize same-sex marriage in Georgia.

“There can be no half-measures, there can be no halfway,” Borelli says. “We will only have equality when we really have full equality and access to marriage for all, which is what we are all working so hard towards.”