Tara Borelli
Tara Borelli ()

Correction appended

Michael Bishop, the general counsel for the AT&T Intellectual Property Corp. in Atlanta, and his longtime partner, Johnny Shane Thomas, applied for a marriage license at Fulton County Probate Court on April 10.

Bishop, 50, said that he and Thomas, a Realtor and former member of the Air National Guard with whom he is raising two young children, paid $56 for a license and “got clear indications of personal sympathy” from the clerks. But the clerks also informed him of what he already knew—that state law would not allow the couple to marry in Georgia.

The clerks forwarded the marriage license application to Fulton County Probate Judge Pinkie Toomer for consideration. Bishop said that the couple subsequently received their check and “a nice frameable order” in the mail. The order, signed by Toomer, “was very matter-of-fact; it cited the applicable law and constitutional provisions that they were denying our application for a marriage license.”

State law mandates that no marriage license be issued to people of the same sex. Toomer also cited Article I, Section IV of the state constitution, which declares, “This state shall recognize as marriage only the union of man and woman.”

Bishop and Thomas on Tuesday joined with two other same-sex Georgia couples and a widow whose wife died last month in bringing a federal suit challenging Georgia’s longtime ban on same-sex marriage. The suit also seeks to force government officials to recognize legal same-sex marriages entered into in other jurisdictions.

The suit—a proposed class action that would include all of the state’s unmarried same-sex couples as well as all Georgia residents who have legally married a same-sex spouse in another state—says that Georgia’s ban on same-sex marriage inflicts “serious and irreparable harms” on same-sex couples and their children “that cannot be explained by reference to legitimate governmental interests.”

The suit names as defendants Deborah Aderhold, the state registrar and director of vital records who signed the woman’s death certificate; Toomer; and Gwinnett County Probate Court Clerk Brook Davidson. The trio of public officials are being sued because, according to the suit, each of them or the public employees they supervise “intentionally performed, participated in, aided, or abetted in some manner the enforcement of the marriage bans.”

Toomer declined Tuesday through a spokeswoman to comment. Davidson could not be reached. Gwinnett County Attorney M. Van Stephens said he had not seen the suit and would have no comment. Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for Georgia Attorney General Sam OIens, who will defend Aderhold, said in an email: “The Attorney General will fulfill his constitutional obligation to defend Georgia law.”

The case—Inniss v. Aderhold, No. 1:14-cv-1180 (N.D. Ga.)—has been assigned to U.S. District Judge William Duffey Jr., a former U.S. attorney. He was appointed to the bench in 2003 by President George W. Bush.

Bishop said that although he and his partner are “very private people,” they also know that “people are catalysts for change.”

“When an opportunity for people to step up presents itself, it’s important—and we have a duty—as members of our community to step up and be heard.”

A self-described history buff, Bishop said he places great faith in one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s sayings: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

“Over time, attitudes change,” he said. “We felt like there was a special opportunity for us to be part of that process here in Georgia.”

Bishop acknowledged that challenging Georgia’s prohibition on same-sex marriage “is a tough fight. We know we are not walking into an Easter parade in terms of the ease of carrying this cause through to victory. We are also confident in the skills of our counsel in this fight.”

Attorneys with the Southern regional office of Lambda Legal, a national organization supporting the rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender individuals, are representing the plaintiffs.

“Every day that same-sex couples in Georgia are denied the freedom to marry, the government sends a message that their families are not worthy of dignity and respect,” Tara Borelli, a senior attorney for Lambda Legal in Atlanta and cocounsel for the plaintiffs, said after the suit was filed. “Georgians believe in the Southern values of love, honor and family, but as long as the State of Georgia continues to bar same-sex couples from marriage, it devalues these families and reinforces unfairness and discrimination.”

Cocounsel Elizabeth Littrell said that Lambda Legal had not directly challenged the state’s same-sex marriage ban until now because, “We simply didn’t feel the time was right or that the momentum had built to the point that the courts were likely to rule our way.” But following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act as an unconstitutional deprivation imposed on same-sex couples, U.S. v. Windsor, “There has been a landslide of litigation filed and an unbroken stream of successes,” the attorney explained. “We feel the time is right now to build on that and to make the best case that we can.”

Lambda Legal lawyers Gregory Nevins and Susan Sommer are also cocounsel. They are joined by a team of Bryan Cave attorneys led by firm partner William Custer IV, and David Draigh of White & Case in Miami who are pro bono cocounsel in the litigation.

The suit seeks marriage equality for more than 21,000 same-sex couples and their families across the state, said Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Equality, an advocacy organization for the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

In addition to Bishop and Thomas, other plaintiffs include Rayshawn Chandler, 29, and Avery Chandler, 30, of Jonesboro, both Atlanta police officers who were legally married in Connecticut but want their marriage recognized by the state of Georgia; and Christopher Inniss, 39, and his partner, Shelton Stroman, 42, of Snellville—a same-sex couple who have been together 13 years and have a 9-year-old son and are seeking the right to marry here.

Decatur resident and Delta Airlines employee Jennifer Sisson, whose wife, Pamela Drenner, died of ovarian cancer last month, is also a plaintiff in the litigation. The couple were legally married in New York but the state of Georgia refused to list Sisson as her partner’s wife on Drenner’s death certificate. Drenner’s death certificate, according to the suit, lists her as “never married.” Sisson was listed as “informant” and “partner.”

Like Toomer, Davidson, the Gwinnett probate clerk, was named as a defendant after Inniss and Stroman applied for a marriage license at her office on April 17, and she refused to accept their application.

In 1996, the Georgia legislature passed a law prohibiting “as a public policy of this state” the marriage of same-sex couples. It also declared as void any marriage license issued by another state to couples of the same sex; voided any contractual rights arising from those out-of-state marriages, and stripped the state’s courts of jurisdiction to grant a divorce to anyone in a same-sex union.

In 2004, the legislature went even further, proposing and passing a constitutional amendment, subsequently approved by the voters, that enshrined in the state constitution a recognition of marriage only as the union of a man and a woman. The constitutional ban on same-sex marriage also decreed that no union between people of the same sex would be recognized as entitled to any benefits of marriage and barred the state from recognizing any legal same-sex marriage that took place outside of Georgia.

As a result, according to the suit, same-sex couples in Georgia have been stripped of caretaking and medical decisions involving their partners in times of death, disaster or incapacitation, as well as the ability to consent to an autopsy, or control the disposition of or make funeral arrangements for a deceased same-sex spouse or partner.

Same-sex partners, even if legally married in other states, do not have standing in Georgia to sue over a spouse’s wrongful death or recover worker’s compensation benefits, have no inheritance rights or survivor’s benefits, or the ability to secure legal recognition as parents when the children are adopted, are barred from filing joint income tax returns, and do not have the right to take leave under the Family Medical Leave Act to care for a spouse with a serious medical condition.

This article has been changed to reflect the following correction: The April 23 article, “Same-sex couples sue to strike down Ga. marriage ban,” misreported the section of the state constitution a Fulton County probate judge cited when denying a marriage license to a same-sex couple. Judge Pinkie Toomer cited Article I, Section IV, Paragraph I, which declares, “This state shall recognize as marriage only the union of man and woman.” Judge Toomer didn’t cite Article I, Section I, Paragraph IV, which mandates freedom of religion but says that freedom “shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace and safety of the state.”