GA Voice - - Front Page - By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS

One day in Novem­ber 2004, nine men and women were go­ing about their lives like it was any other day when they heard the news that 76 per­cent of their friends and neigh­bors had a mes­sage for them—mar­riage isn’t for you.

They couldn’t have known then what role they would even­tu­ally play in at­tempt­ing to re­verse that day’s events. But they would.

This year, they came to­gether. A vet­eri­nar­ian. A flight at­ten­dant. A lawyer. A teacher. A pet re­sort man­ager. A po­lice of­fi­cer. An en­gi­neer. A Re­al­tor. A pro­fes­sor.

They came to step up and be the plain­tiffs in the fed­eral law­suit chal­leng­ing Ge­or­gia’s 2004 same-sex mar­riage ban, and they’re GA Voice’s 2014 Peo­ple of the Year.

We talked to lo­cal le­gal ex­perts about the law­suit and to the plain­tiffs them­selves and why they are the per­fect peo­ple to help lead Ge­or­gia into be­com­ing a state that rec­og­nizes same-sex mar­riage.


Mer­ritt McAlis­ter, se­nior as­so­ciate with King & Spald­ing, is a for­mer law clerk to both Judge R. Lanier An­der­son III of the 11th Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals and for­mer U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice John Paul Stevens. The plain­tiffs in this law­suit are ex­cel­lent choices be­cause of the va­ri­ety of sto­ries they rep­re­sent, she says.

“The Inniss plain­tiffs re­flect the rich­ness and full­ness of our com­mu­nity, and their sto­ries un­der­score the va­ri­ety of ways in which not be­ing able to marry in Ge­or­gia im­poses real costs on our lives,” McAllister says.

“Some of the plain­tiffs have been mar­ried in other states, yet will be de­nied ba­sic ben­e­fits in Ge­or­gia that their mar­riage would re­ceive else­where. Oth­ers need the pro­tec­tion of mar­riage to se­cure adop­tion rights, health cov­er­age for their fam­i­lies, and spousal ben­e­fits. Col­lec­tively, they present a pow­er­ful story,” she adds.

And, as im­por­tantly, they present pow­er­ful sto­ries to which courts can re­late. Their sto­ries will res­onate with judges who have shared sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences—the loss of a part­ner, cre­at­ing a fam­ily, the risk of los­ing a loved one in the line of duty, McAllister says.

“We’ve seen how im­por­tant it is for judges to un­der­stand that LGBT fam­i­lies are ex­actly like their own—es­pe­cially when it comes to pro­tect­ing the in­ter­ests of chil­dren raised in LGBT fam­i­lies. Ar­gu­ments fo­cus­ing on fam­i­lies, chil­dren, and the real emo­tional costs, not just the ob­vi­ous fi­nan­cial ones, of not be­ing able to marry seem to have res­onated well with the courts—even con­ser­va­tive judges.”


Tara Borelli, se­nior at­tor­ney at the South­ern Re­gional Of­fice of Lambda Le­gal, the LGBT le­gal group that filed the case and is rep­re­sent­ing the plain­tiffs, says she is in­spired by the plain­tiffs and their will­ing­ness to put their lives in the pub­lic eye in the fight for ev­ery­one’s equal­ity.

“I have been so in­spired to get to know th­ese brave in­di­vid­u­als and their fam­i­lies. They are truly a re­flec­tion of the fab­ric of Ge­or­gia so­ci­ety. They in­clude teach­ers, business own­ers, and a po­lice of­fi­cer and de­ployed re­servist serv­ing in the Mid­dle East,” Borelli says.

“Many are de­voted par­ents. One of them nursed her beloved spouse through a fi­nal fight with ter­mi­nal ill­ness. It has been such a joy to get to know our plain­tiffs, whose sto­ries are truly in­spir­ing. They are a re­flec­tion of our best selves, and Lambda Le­gal is hon­ored to rep­re­sent them,” she says.

Be­ing hon­ored as the GA Voice’s Peo­ple of the Year is an honor they de­serve, Borelli adds.

“We are so pleased that the GA Voice is rec­og­niz­ing their con­tri­bu­tion to our move­ment. Step­ping into the spot­light to bring a case like this is not easy. It takes stamina, for­ti­tude, and ded­i­ca­tion,” she ex­plains.

“The plain­tiffs de­voted count­less hours to work­ing with the lawyers as we pre­pared their com­plaint. They have bravely sub­jected them­selves to pub­lic scru­tiny as part of the im­por­tant work of telling our sto­ries to change hearts and minds. This takes moral courage, and they have done all of it with such grace.”


Christo­pher Inniss, 39, and Shel­ton Stro­man, 42, of Snel­lville, have been to­gether for 13 years. They adopted a child and be­cause the fa­thers have dif­fer­ent last names, there is of­ten con­fu­sion with teach­ers and 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.

Rayshawn Chandler, 29, and Avery Chandler, 30, of Jones­boro. Rayshawn is a flight at­ten­dant with Delta Air Lines and Avery is a po­lice of­fi­cer for the At­lanta Po­lice Depart­ment and 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. The State of Ge­or­gia’s re­fusal to rec­og­nize their mar­riage means one of them might not be rec­og­nized on the birth cer­tifi­cate of their chil­dren, and Rayshawn won’t be rec­og­nized as her spouse if Avery gets killed in the line of duty.

Michael Bishop, 50, and Shane Thomas, 44, of Mid­town At­lanta, have been to­gether for eight years. Michael, a lawyer, and Shane, a Re­al­tor, have two young chil­dren. They worry about the sense of in­fe­ri­or­ity or un­cer­tainty their chil­dren will carry be­cause their par­ents can’t get mar­ried. They filed for a mar­riage li­cense in Ful­ton County Pro­bate Court on April 10 and were de­nied.

Jen­nifer Sis­son, 34, of De­catur, 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 went to make fu­neral ar­range­ments in Ge­or­gia, she was told, un­der Ge­or­gia law, she could choose as Dren­ner’s mar­i­tal sta­tus only “never mar­ried,” “wid­owed,” or “di­vorced.” The death cer­tifi­cate even­tu­ally read “never mar­ried,” caus­ing tremen­dous pain to Sis­son.

Beth Wurz, 41, and Krista Wurz, 39, of Brunswick, mar­ried in Oc­to­ber 2010 in New Hamp­shire and have seven chil­dren, in­clud­ing five placed with them through foster care. Beth is an English pro­fes­sor and Krista is an Air Force veteran and spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion teacher. Since Ge­or­gia doesn’t rec­og­nize their mar­riage, Krista and some of the chil­dren are de­nied health cov­er­age through Beth’s job and they have been de­nied the abil­ity to adopt their chil­dren jointly.

Plain­tiff Jen­nifer Sis­son was forced to choose ‘never mar­ried’ on her widow’s death cer­tifi­cate, even though they were legally mar­ried in New York. (Photo cour­tesy Lambda Le­gal)

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