Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Gay S.C. Highway Patrol trooper and her spouse challenge state's same-sex marriage ban

Couple are first in S.C. to file federal lawsuit after june SCOTUS ruling on DOMA

Posted by Corey Hutchins on Tue, Sep 3, 2013 at 2:47 PM

If a married S.C. Highway Patrol trooper were to die in the line of duty, her husband could, if he wanted, request his deceased wife's firearm to keep as a memorial of her public service. If that were to happen to trooper Katherine Bradacs, though, her spouse might not get that opportunity. That's because trooper Bradacs is a woman who last year married another woman in a state that allowed it — and South Carolina, where they live, does not recognize their marriage. 

Trooper Bradacs and her spouse Tracie Goodwin, who live in Lexington County, are the first gay couple challenging South Carolina's laws against same-sex marriage.

At issue is the state's 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and also a constitutional amendment voters passed in 2006 that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. The couple were legally married in Washington, D.C. on April 6, 2012. The District of Columbia and 13 states allow same sex marriage.

Their lawsuit comes after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Bradacs and Goodwin are suing Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson, both Republicans, in federal district court in Columbia. The lawsuit lists several ways in which same-sex couples are harmed because of the state's laws. It asks a judge to declare that the state's anti-gay marriage statute and constitutional provision violate the constitutional rights of same-sex couples. Columbia attorneys Carrie Warner and John Nichols are representing the plaintiffs in the case.

“By refusing to recognize their marriages from other states, South Carolina law deprives them of numerous legal protections that are available to opposite-sex couples,” the lawsuit argues. More than 1,000 federal benefits, privileges, and responsibilities are impacted by marital status in the United States, the lawsuit states. Numerous state benefits are also impacted by marital status. Consider, for instance, the phrase “surviving spouse” in the state code of laws determining who can request the service weapon of a cop killed on duty after it is “rendered permanently inoperable.”

Others benefits are less obscure. Trooper Bradacs, who is a public employee, cannot put her spouse Goodwin on her state health plan because of South Carolina's law. Nor can the two claim being married as a standard deduction on their federal taxes since their marriage isn't recognized here. They cannot take time off work if one of them is sick under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, nor can they access each other's social security retirement benefits. According to the State of South Carolina, their lawsuit argues, the two are treated as legal strangers.

The lawsuit, however, does not challenge the laws on solely financial or beneficiary grounds.

Although the couple has been in a “long-term committed relationship, this couple and other same-sex couples are denied the stabilizing effects of marriage, which helps keep couples together during times of crisis or conflict,” the lawsuit states. Excluding gay couples from marriage, it argues, also harms their children “by denying them the social recognition that comes with marriage.”

Longtime U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson will hear the case, absent a jury.

Earlier this month, lawyers for an LGBT rights group formed a legal team to research how the state's laws negatively affect same-sex couples. While the group, called the Post-DOMA Litigation Task Force, is not involved in the recent lawsuit, they support the couple and welcome the court action, said its chairwoman Malissa Burnette. She said she'd been hearing a lawsuit might be in the works.

“It's going to be very interesting,” she predicts about how it might play out in court. “They have been assigned a seasoned judge who will give all the parties a fair hearing.”

Burnette said she's heard other state and federal lawsuits have been percolating since the June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to litigation here. In the meantime, her task force is still gathering stories of same-sex couples across the state in order to document their troubles in an area of the country where gay marriage is banned.

In was in 1996 when members of the S.C. House approved the state Defense of Marriage Law by an 82-0 vote and the Senate approved it by a voice vote, according to The State. David Beasley, who was the state's Republican governor at the time, signed it into law. The measure states, “A marriage between persons of the same sex is void ab initio (from the start) and against the public policy of this state.”

General election voters in 2006 approved an amendment to South Carolina's Constitution banning same-sex marriage 78 percent (or 829,360 votes) to 22 percent (234,316 votes), The State reported.

The attorney general's office is still reviewing the lawsuit, says its spokesman Mark Powell. He said it's too early for Wilson to comment.

S.C. Same-Sex Marriage Lawsuit by CharlestonCityPaper

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