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Court clerks sued over gay marriage

July 08, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - The American Civil Liberties Union sued five circuit court clerks - including Washington County's - on Wednesday over the state's ban on gay marriages.

Nine same-sex couples are plaintiffs, along with John Lestitian of Hagerstown, whose longtime partner, James Bradley, died last year.

The suit alleges that the circuit court clerks' offices in Baltimore City and Prince George's, St. Mary's and Dorchester counties rejected couples' requests for marriage permits last week.

The suit, filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, asks the court to declare Maryland's ban "an unjustified deprivation of fundamental rights"; order the defendants not to refuse marriage licenses to the plaintiffs or other same-sex couples because of their gender; and award the plaintiffs "reasonable costs."

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Washington County Circuit Clerk Dennis Weaver also is named as a defendant, although the suit doesn't allege that his office turned down a marriage license request.

"We have not had any (same-sex) couples ask for marriage licenses," Weaver said Wednesday. He had not been served with the complaint and declined to comment.

A section of Maryland's Family Law says: "Only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid in this state."

In February, Maryland Assistant Attorney General Gloria Wilson Shelton sent a memo to all clerks of court in the state advising them that same-sex marriages are not permitted.

From June 28 to July 2, five female couples and four male couples tested the law by asking for marriage licenses. All were denied.

The Maryland suit follows similar ACLU same-sex marriage challenges in Virginia, New York and other states.

The debate has raged elsewhere, particularly Massachusetts, which in May became the first state to legalize gay marriages.

Dorchester County Circuit Clerk Michael Baker couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

St. Mary's County Circuit Clerk Evelyn Arnold and the circuit clerks' offices in Baltimore City and Prince George's County referred questions to Shelton.

Shelton referred questions to Kevin Enright, a spokesman for Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

Defending the law


On Curran's behalf, Enright released a statement that said: "It is not surprising that given the recent national wave of lawsuits and activism surrounding the issue of same sex marriage, a challenge has been filed to Maryland law....

"This Office has advised repeatedly that, in our view, the Family Law Article unambiguously defines marriage in a way that excludes same sex couples. However, it seems appropriate that the issue, which has been framed as a matter of civil rights, be decided by the courts.

"Unless the Court of Appeals declares it unconstitutional, or the General Assembly invalidates it, this Office will defend Maryland's law, as it is my sworn obligation to do."

ACLU of Maryland spokeswoman Stacey Mink said the controversy over marriage licenses is a way into broader questions of fairness and equal protection under Maryland law.

"The real issue is discrimination," she said.

"This lawsuit is about the constitutionality of the marriage laws. ... This is about families, and all families are not the same," said Lestitian, who is Hagerstown's chief code enforcement officer.

He said Maryland's ban on same-sex marriage and the rights that marriage carries hurt him badly.

Bradley, 33, committed suicide last summer while battling depression, Lestitian said.

Lestitian said that afterward, under Maryland law, he was prevented from inheriting the couple's house, which was in Bradley's name, and was forced to pay an inheritance tax on half of their assets.

Bradley's will was invalidated because it did not have the signature of a second witness.

Lestitian was forced to sell the house. He said he accepted a contract offer Tuesday.

Lestitian said he and Bradley were a couple for 13 years. They committed to each other in a Catholic service in Washington, D.C., in 1991.

"In my words, I'm a surviving spouse," he said. "In the state's words, I'm a friend. That's a casual acquaintance. ...

"The state views me as no one. ... The bottom line is no one should have to bear the pain that has caused me."

Lestitian first spoke publicly about his situation in March at a gay marriage forum sponsored by Equality Maryland, a civil rights organization that worked on the lawsuit with the ACLU.

Since then, he has resolved to press for a change in the law.

"I'm 38 and because - I hope so - I will probably find love again in life ... I'd want the failsafes of marriage to protect my spouse," he said.

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