Originally created 10/07/04

Ruling buoys opponents



ATLANTA - Less than a month before Georgia voters decide whether to approve a constitutional ban on gay marriage, a Louisiana state judge this week threw out a similarly-worded referendum already passed last month by voters in that state.

The development encouraged those who are fighting to halt Georgia's referendum from going before voters Nov. 2, while frustrating gay-marriage opponents who say such judges are denying the will of the public.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Judge William Morvant ruled Tuesday that the Louisiana ban, passed by 78 percent of state voters Sept. 18, was illegal because it asked voters to ban both gay marriages and civil unions with a single vote.

The Louisiana Constitution prevents a law or constitutional amendment from containing more than one objective or purpose. Judge Morvant's ruling is expected to be appealed by early next week.

Opponents of Georgia's proposed referendum hailed the Louisiana ruling, noting that they are trying to halt the ban because it, too, uses one question to ban gay marriage and civil unions, while also limiting the jurisdiction of Georgia courts.

"We're encouraged anytime there is recognition of full equality for all citizens," said Jack Senterfitt, the lead legal counsel for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of three legal groups working to defeat the Georgia referendum by mounting arguments based on voters' rights.

Mr. Senterfitt said Georgia's referendum, much like the one passed in Louisiana, presents a problem for state voters who oppose gay marriage but support civil unions or vice versa.

"It's just about impossible for them to vote for all they hold as a matter of conscience," he said, noting that Georgia's constitution also requires amendments to address only one subject at a time.

Seven Georgia voters - represented by Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and the Atlanta law firm of Alston & Bird - filed a lawsuit last month in Fulton County Superior Court, asking for the proposed marriage ban to be thrown out due to its multi-issue format.

However, Judge Constance Russell ruled Sept. 29 that legal precedence prevents her from intervening until after voters had a chance to weigh in on the referendum.

The case is now on emergency appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. The Georgia Attorney General's Office is defending the constitutionality of the referendum on behalf of Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who was named as defendant in the lawsuit because her office oversees the state's elections.

Gay marriage is already illegal under Georgia law, but some groups say a constitutional amendment is needed to prevent state courts and judges from ruling in favor of same-sex couples.

Those supporting the Georgia gay-marriage ban said they aren't worried about the constitutionality of the referendum.

Reach reporter Brian Basinger at (404) 217-8838 or brian.basinger@morris.com.