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Same-Sex Couples Can Fight Ga. Marriage Ban

ATLANTA (CN) - Same-sex couples seeking to wed in Georgia may pursue a challenge to the state's gay marriage ban, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge William Duffey refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of four Georgia-based same-sex couples and the surviving partner of a fifth couple. The lawsuit, which claimed that the state's refusal to marry same-sex couples, or recognize gay marriages from other states, violated the couples' constitutional rights, is one of many such class actions filed nationwide.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review appeals from other states in October, but is expected to rule on the issue in the near future due to a split among federal appellate courts.

Georgia is one of 14 states that limit marriage to the legal union between a man and a woman and refuse to recognize gay marriages from other states. Several states reversed similar bans following legal challenges, with Florida being the last to join that group earlier this month.

Georgia voters approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2004. Gay rights groups challenged the wording of the ballot in state court, but the Georgia Supreme Court found the vote valid in 2006.

The 2014 federal lawsuit challenged the ban itself, as opposed to the wording of the amendment.

Lead plaintiffs Christopher Inniss and Shelton Stroman, of Snellville, Ga., have lived together since 2004 and adopted a son who is now 9, according to the lawsuit. The couple sought to legalize their union, but the state denied them a marriage license, they claimed in the complaint.

Their co-plaintiffs claimed the state's refusal to recognize them as legal spouses deprived them of health insurance and survivor benefits available to legally married couples.

Moreover, the couples cannot jointly adopt the children they are raising together, according to the lawsuit.

Co-plaintiff Jennifer Sisson, whose same-sex partner died in 2014, sought to be added as the legal wife on her partner's death certificate.

The state tried to dismiss the claims, arguing that the ban furthered its legitimate interest in providing family stability and child welfare.

But Duffey ruled Thursday that the state could not show how the ban advanced such interests.

In addressing the plaintiffs' arguments, the court noted that the right to marry a person of the same sex is not among the rights "deeply rooted in this nation's history and tradition."

U.S. Supreme Court decisions declaring marriage a fundamental right did not extend to same-sex marriage, according to the Jan. 8 ruling.

As for the couples' equal-protection claims, Georgia's marriage laws prohibit same-sex marriage, but do not discriminate against men or women as a class, the 49-page ruling states.

However, the state failed to address "how Georgia's asserted interests in child welfare and procreation are advanced by the state's prohibition on same-sex marriages, and the state's refusal to recognize lawful marriages performed in other states," Duffey wrote.

The court lifted a previous stay, allowing the case to proceed to trial.

"We are delighted that the court will allow this case to continue," Tara Borelli, an attorney for Lambda Legal, the organization that filed the lawsuit, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We look forward to our day in court to demonstrate Georgia's marriage ban is unconstitutional and relegates the state's same-sex couples to a second-class status that keeps them and their families vulnerable."

Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Samuel Olens, said the state will continue to enforce its laws pending a final decision on this issue."The district court issued a preliminary ruling on a motion to dismiss on a pressing legal issue working its way through the higher courts," Kane said in an email to Courthouse News. "We look forward to further clarification regarding the ability of states to decide these questions. The United States Supreme Court has an opportunity to review this issue and will likely announce its intent in the coming weeks. There are other cases pending in front of the 11th Circuit that will provide a similar opportunity. As the issue remains pending, the office will continue to pursue its constitutional obligation to defend the laws as passed by the legislature and the citizens of the state of Georgia."

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