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6 Couples, Gay Rights Groups Sue California

Lawsuit's filing comes in wake of state high court's order stopping same-sex marriages.

March 13, 2004|Cynthia Daniels and Lee Romney | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — Six same-sex couples and two gay rights groups filed a lawsuit in Superior Court here Friday against California, claiming the state is violating their constitutional rights by denying them marriage licenses.

The lawsuit came less than 24 hours after the California Supreme Court unanimously ordered the city of San Francisco to stop marrying same-sex couples while the court considers whether city officials had the legal authority to violate state law.

It also comes one day after San Francisco officials filed their own lawsuit making a similar claim -- that California statutes limiting marriage to being between "a man and a woman" violate the California Constitution's guarantees of equality, liberty and privacy.

The state high court had agreed to explore only the issue of whether San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and other officials acted properly. But in their orders Thursday, the justices left the door open for the broader constitutional question to be addressed by a Superior Court lawsuit.

If either of the two lawsuits filed since Thursday is successful, "the benefit will be felt by all lesbian and gay couples in California," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which filed Friday's suit on behalf of the couples and groups along with Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern and Southern California.

"This is a lawsuit about equality for gay and lesbian couples," said Jennifer Pizer, senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal, a national gay and lesbian civil rights organization.

"They know they cannot be fully equal in this country without the full equal right to marry in this country."

Since Feb. 12, when Newsom ordered the gender-neutral licenses issued, 4,161 same-sex couples were married at City Hall. The court's order left hanging the plans of 2,688 other couples who had made appointments to wed through May. Many had already arrived with family and friends in tow. Dozens of city staff members and volunteers on Friday telephoned gay and lesbian couples around the country to inform them of the state Supreme Court order.

But many had not gotten the word.

As Newsom headed to a morning event, he stopped to talk with one crestfallen Los Angeles male couple -- outfitted in tuxedos -- who had arrived by car with their children.

Newsom reiterated his commitment to same-sex marriages Friday when he appeared on "Good Morning America." For the couples turned away, however, the consolation is small.

Five of the couples named in the lawsuit were scheduled to marry in San Francisco within the month. The couples said the court's decision on Thursday left them devastated.

"Being jilted at the altar is one of the great mythological heartbreaks of our culture," said Jewelle Gomez, one of the plaintiffs. "But being jilted at the altar by your own government is worse."

Gomez and her partner of 11 years, Diane Sabin, also a plaintiff, were not scheduled to be married. But they had been discussing it and hoped to do so at some point. The couple, who are registered as domestic partners in the city and county of San Francisco and the state, said they have paid about $3,500 in lawyers' fees for trusts and durable powers of attorney to ensure that each has legal authority in the other's financial and health matters.

"I would like to see the courts uphold what is in the Constitution, which is equal protection under the law," Gomez said. "I think it's a fairly straightforward constitutional statement and anything passed contradicting that is unconstitutional."

Plaintiffs Pali Cooper and Jeanne Rizzo said they hoped the lawsuit would advance the cause of gay and lesbian rights.

The couple, who have been together for 15 years, were scheduled to be married Thursday and were approaching the clerk's office with about 50 family members when the order came to halt the marriages. Their decision to become plaintiffs in the lawsuit was an easy one.

"This is an opportunity for us to stand for something we, as a family, believe in," Rizzo said. "Making this kind of commitment is a big deal but we need to contribute to the legacy. I have to believe we are leaving this world a little bit better than the way we had to live in it."

The organizations listed in the lawsuit, Our Family Coalition and Equality California, are dedicated to civil rights for families with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members.

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who is named as a defendant, had yet to review the lawsuit and declined to comment.

The gay rights groups did not coordinate their lawsuit with the city of San Francisco, but the parties say they look forward to working together. It's also possible the two actions could be consolidated, Kendell said.

"We need the city to be doing what they're doing in terms of the legitimacy of their claims, and the city needs couples with real-life stories to give substance to the importance of the official action," she said.

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