A veterinarian. A business manager. Two Atlanta police officers. A lawyer. A Realtor. A widow. Those are the seven plaintiffs behind a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday to undo Georgia's nearly 10-year-old ban on gay marriage.
They stood with lawyers from Lambda Legal and activists from Georgia Equality to announce the lawsuit, which Lambda teased just days ago could be coming. Until Tuesday, Georgia was just one of five states that banned gay marriage yet didn't have a lawsuit over it. Even Alabama has one. Now, Inniss v. Aderhold is the 65th lawsuit filed across the U.S. challenging gay marriage bans.
"We filed a class action lawsuit asking the court to strike down these discriminatory Georgia marriage bans," said Lambda Legal attorney Beth Littrell. "We filed this lawsuit today, simply put, because marriage matters. It maters to our plaintiffs. It matters to their children. It matters to thousands of same-sex couples across Georgia who are either married, want to be married or whom someday need to be married."
The lawsuit takes aim at three defendants: Deborah Aderhold, state registrar and vital record director; Brook Davidson, clerk of Gwinnett County Probate Court; and Fulton County Probate Judge Pinkie Toomer. Davidson and Toomer are named for denying marriage licenses to the gay plaintiffs in the suit; Aderhold is included for denying an amendment to the death certificate of the wife of plaintiff Jennifer Sisson recognizing she was married in another state.
"It is a travesty that we put loving couples through this, 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 that you love," said Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality's executive director. "It has been a long road to get here in Georgia. But it is a great day. We are on the cusp of a turning point here in our state."
Meet the seven plaintiffs and listen to their reasons for joining the lawsuit.
Christopher Inniss and Shelton Stroman
Christopher Inniss, 39, and Shelton Stroman, 42, of Snellville, have been together for 13 years, raising their son Jonathan, 9. Chris is a veterinarian and Shelton manages the Snellville Pet Resort, a business the couple owns together. Jonathan is old enough to understand that his parents aren’t married but he struggles to understand why. Although they tell him that they are still a family even if the State doesn’t allow them to marry, Jonathan wants them to be married like many of his other friends’ parents. Chris and Shelton find it painful that they cannot fulfill Jonathan’s wish. They also need the protections and dignity that only marriage provides.
Rayshawn Chandler and Avery Chandler
Rayshawn Chandler, 29, and Avery Chandler, 30, of Jonesboro were married in Connecticut last June. Both Rayshawn and Avery work as police officers for the Atlanta Police Department. Avery is in the Army Reserves. It’s important for the couple to have their marriage recognized by the state of Georgia because they are planning to have children. The State’s refusal to recognize their marriage means that Avery may not be recognized on the birth certificate as the other parent of their children. It also means that they are not recognized as spouses to each other should either of them get killed in the line of duty.
Michael Bishop and Shane Thomas
Michael Bishop, 50, and Shane Thomas, 44, of Atlanta have been in a loving committed relationship for over seven years. Michael is a lawyer at AT&T and Shane is a realtor, but their lives revolve around their two children Thomas, 5, and Mariella, 3. Just like other parents, their lives are filled with ordinary things like getting their little ones off to school, taking them to birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese, or visiting Piedmont Park and the Botanical Gardens. They wish to marry not just to express their devotion to each other, but they also do not want their children to carry a sense of uncertainty or inferiority because they know their parents aren’t allowed to be married, like other parents.
Jennifer Sisson, 34, of Decatur, recently lost the love of her life when her spouse, Pamela Drenner, 49, passed away on March 1, 2014 after a long battle with ovarian cancer. The couple were married on Valentine’s Day in 2013 in New York at City Hall, after tests showed that Pam’s cancer treatment appeared to have been successful. While they knew Georgia would not recognize the marriage, they wanted to memorialize the commitment and love they felt for each other. When Jennifer thinks about her marriage to Pam, and how to honor her memory, she wants to shout their love from the rooftops. Instead, just after the final hours of Pam’s life, the State erased their marriage by refusing to recognize Pam as married, or Jennifer as her spouse, on the final document memorializing Pam’s existence – her death certificate.
During the press conference, the plaintiffs were joined by Lambda Legal's Beth Littrell, a lead attorney on the case, and Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality.