A red state gets ready for gay marriage

The Georgia Council of Probate Judges is ready to substitute “applicant 1” and “applicant 2” for “bride” and “groom” on the state’s marriage forms. Delta Air Lines is prepared to extend spousal benefits to its gay employees in Georgia. Local pastors are drafting sermons on whether the will of the U.S. Supreme Court might also reflect the will of God.

The high court will rule this month on whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marry. And while Georgia has stood fast in its opposition, even here many people are preparing for a decision favorable to gay rights.

Proponents have already selected a venue for their celebration — the National Center for Civil and Human Rights downtown. And some gay couples say they’ll marry on the day the ruling comes down.

“Yes, everybody feels positive,” said Emma Foulkes, president of Atlanta Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. She and her partner can hardly wait to tie the knot. “We’ve been talking about camping out (at the courthouse) and that maybe we need to get a pup tent and some chairs.”

The court’s approval is not inevitable. The justices could rule that states have the right to decide the issue for themselves, which would mean that Georgia’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage will stand. Opponents say the pro-gay-marriage forces are getting ahead of themselves.

“I don’t think it’s a done deal,” said Tanya Ditty, state director of Concerned Women for America of Georgia.

She believes the growing sense of expectation surrounding this issue has been “ginned up” by gay-rights advocates, Hollywood and a liberal media.

“I’m hoping that the justices look at the question before them intellectually, and that they don’t decide because of some cultural whim,” she said. “That’s where I want to put my faith.”

Even so, some metro Atlanta corporations, consultants, municipalities and judges are getting ready for a monumental legal and cultural shift for Georgia. The state stands among 13 states in the country that limit marriage to a man and a woman.

Preparations underway

Should the high court affirm gay marriage, the Georgia Council of Probate Judges will ship its new forms electronically to the 159 probate courts across the state, in time for marriages on the day of the decision, said Chase Daughtrey, the Cook County probate judge and the outgoing head of the judges council.

In addition, he said he has yet to hear that any judge in the state plans on refusing to perform such marriages.

“They know they have to uphold the Constitution,” Daughtrey said.

Fulton County Commissioners passed a resolution 5-0 on Wednesday to develop a list of judges to officiate same-sex marriages. The county plans to set aside space in its government building for weddings, if need be.

Commissioner Bob Ellis did not vote, saying he did not feel comfortable telling other elected officials how to do their jobs, and did not want to predict how the high court would rule.

Atlanta-based Delta is ready to implement a strategy for its Georgia employees. The international carrier has already made changes for employees in other states where gay marriage became legal and would follow the same course here, said spokeswoman Ashley Black.

Essentially, the company would phase out the domestic partner benefits that it offers to gay and lesbian employees and their partners. These employees would have two years to get married and apply for the company’s standard marital benefits, she said.

“This will provide parity and equality for all employees from a benefits perspective,” Black said.

‘Lot of attention and inquiries’

MARTA officials said they researching the impacts of an affirmative decision on their benefits package for employees and spouses.

Likewise, many big companies have been examining same-sex partner benefits since the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 and forced the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, said Tony Holmes, a senior consultant in Atlanta for the national human resources consulting firm Mercer.

“Clearly there’s a lot of attention and inquiries,” he said.

Many firms are withholding changes pending the court’s decision, he added. As Delta has, some are considering the elimination of domestic partnership benefits for same-sex couples, replacing them with the requirement that these workers marry their partner to receive benefits.

In many companies, it remains unclear whether an affirmative court decision would result in more or fewer partners obtaining coverage.

In part, that would depend on how many same-sex partners decide to marry.

‘Marriage is a holy and sacred institution’

Even if the Supreme Court holds that the Constitution protects gay marriage, the issue will hardly be put to rest in a state where polling shows residents virtually split on the matter.

Indeed, evangelist Alveda King, a licensed minister and niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said she would not perform a gay marriage, if asked, regardless of what the Supreme Court decides.

“Marriage is a holy and sacred institution,” she said. “And holy matrimony, according to the word of God, is defined as a holy commitment between one man and one woman.”

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of same sex marriage “it will not change my position of teaching the Bible and doing my best to live by it.”

Many opponents say they are hesitant to speak out publicly against gay marriage, because they believe advocates quickly try to paint them as hateful bigots.

Joan Rhoden said she isn’t worried that she might find herself the target of what she calls a LGBT “machine that steam rolls over the rights of other people.”

“I would love for someone to try to prove I’m a hate-monger,” said the 64-year-old married mother of three adult children. “I think it’s very sad that people like myself who are against gay marriage are called bigots or hate mongers. It’s slanderous to me.”

She is closely following the issue as it makes its way through the Supreme Court, which has the potential to alter “what has been since time began a gender issue between a man and a woman. This is an alternative lifestyle. … In the end, I believe the Bible is clear that homosexuality is not the way God intended,” she said.

Welcome chance for divorce

For all the optimism in the gay and lesbian community, there’s also an understanding that the court might not rule in their favor, and the rally at Atlanta’s civil rights museum might become less a celebration and more a call to action.

But hope is high that the decision will be a breakthrough for same-sex marriage — and divorce.

Currently, it can be difficult for a Georgia same-sex couple who married in another state to get a divorce, said Atlanta attorney Jeffery Cleghorn, who has numerous gay and lesbian clients. That’s because the great majority of those states require that a gay or lesbian person still be a resident there to get a divorce.

(That doesn’t apply to opposite-sex couples because all 50 states allow for divorce.)

Consequently, many same-sex couples here who want a divorce remain in “marriage purgatory,” unable to legally break away from their spouse, he said.

A Supreme Court decision affirming gay marriage across the country could eliminate that need, because it could give same-sex couples the same rights as opposite-sex couples, he said.

“We would have divorce equality in Georgia,” he said.

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Staff writers David Wickert and Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this report.