Monday was quite a day for gay rights lawyer Tara Borelli. As she sat in her Atlanta office making final edits to the lawsuit that challenges Georgia’s ban on same-sex marriage, there came a flood of news about gay couples marrying in Alabama.
“This is one of the final turning points,” she said Tuesday. “Based on (Alabama’s) history of fighting civil rights … when marriage equality comes to Alabama, you pretty much know it’s going to be a nationwide event.”
Mike Griffin, a Baptist pastor from 90 miles northeast of Atlanta, drew a similar conclusion – to his dismay rather than satisfaction.
“I think that we are at a moment in which we’re making decisions that are going to have some very negative consequences on generations to come,” said Griffin, a frequent visitor to the state Capitol, where he lobbies for the Georgia Baptist Convention.
With conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court signalling that the court may side with supporters of gay marriage during this judicial term, both champions and opponents of same-sex marriage agree that Georgia faces a watershed moment.
The irony is that gay rights activists in metro Atlanta, long considered a haven for gays and lesbians from neighboring, more conservative states, find themselves not in the vanguard but the rear-guard of the legal fight.
Thirty-seven states now allow gay marriage, and the rest are embroiled in court battles. According to the gay marriage organization Freedom to Marry, Georgia is among only three states that still have gay marriage bans in place with no court ruling to lift them.
Georgia’s ban dates to 2004, when voters overwhelmingly amended the state’s Constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The amendment stood unchallenged for a decade, until last year.
In April, three couples and a widow filed a lawsuit, seeking to overturn the ban. By that time, Georgia was one of the last states without such litigation under way.
According to the latest census estimates, slightly more than 20,000 Georgia households are headed by same-sex couples. About 29 percent of them report being married, although Georgia does not currently recognize them as such.
In the city of Atlanta, same-sex couples are 1.7 percent of the population, ranking the city sixth nationally, according to census estimates.
Much has changed in the decade since Georgians voted on same-sex marriage. In a 2013 Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, supporters of same-sex marriage outnumbered opponents, 48 percent to 43 percent. Support was most marked among the young; nearly two-thirds of people aged 18 to 39 said gay marriage should be legal in Georgia.
Meanwhile, a parade of legislatures and federal courts have made gay unions legal in state after state. They include Florida and Alabama, where federal judges have struck down bans.
Those two cases have reached the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which also covers Georgia. The 11th Circuit basically stepped aside, saying there was no point in its ruling on the issue when the Supreme Court has agreed to take it on this spring (although in cases that arose in other states).
Gay weddings began in Alabama (or at least the counties where state officials are not defying the federal government) after the Supreme Court refused to block them until it settles the issue nationally.
Until then, Georgia is not directly affected, because the challenge to its ban is still in the pre-trial stage. Last month, federal District Judge Bill Duffey rejected the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
Attorney General Sam Olens had argued that the state’s interest in promoting procreation and healthy families constitutes a rational basis for banning gay marriage. However Duffey said science does not support the claim that children raised by gay or lesbian couples are less well adjusted than children of heterosexual couples.
Before the case gets much farther, all sides agree, the Supreme Court will probably have decided the issue on a national level.
With eyes fixed on Washington, gay advocates are gleeful at what they see. The court’s refused to put the Alabama changes on hold earned a tongue lashing from dissenting conservative justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. “This … may well be seen as a signal of the Court’s intended resolution of that question. This is not the proper way” for the Court to operate, Thomas wrote.
Those words have been widely interpreted as signalling that the fight is over. But gay marriage opponents insist that while a legal change may be sweeping the country, people in the country are far from unified.
Griffin noted that when people are given the opportunity to vote, here and across the nation, they have consistently voted against same-sex marriage. “They may have polls, and that’s what they are, polls,” he said. “They’re attempting to legislate from the bench what the people have already soundly expressed thorough the legislative process.”
Call gay rights a civil rights issue? Not with Alveda King, a minister and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s niece.
“I fully support God’s Biblical plan for marriage which does not include divorce, does not include adultery, does not include fornication, does not include same-sex marriage and polygamy,” she said. “Liberty does not always mean doing what feels good to people.”
She sees the wave of gay marriage advancing, and her personal circle includes gay and transgendered people. But she believes the tide will turn again. “I firmly believe that God’s great love and mercy never fails,” she said. “I believe you will see an exodus from what we call the gay and homosexual lifestyle.”
Such words don’t surprise Philip Rafshoon, who for many years ran the iconic Outwrite bookstore near Piedmont Park, catering to a gay clientele.
“Atlanta is a very progressive city. But the state is still very, very conservative,” Rafshoon said “Fortunately I am surrounded by people who agree with me on this issue.”
Whatever the foes of gay marriage may believe, he said, “the writing’s on the wall.”