Mobile couple Cari Searcy and Kimberly McKeand made national headlines last week when the case they brought against the state prompted U.S. District Court Judge Callie “Ginny” Granade to overturn Alabama’s long-standing ban on same-sex marriages.
However, with a 14-day temporary stay issued during the weekend and both sides dedicated to fighting all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Searcy v. Strange has become a case with widespread implications that Searcy’s attorney David Kennedy said are “changing by the hour.”
Both the Mobile County Probate Court and the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals previously denied Searcy’s attempts to adopt McKeand’s biological son, citing Alabama’s Marriage Protection Act and Sanctity of Marriage Amendment, the latter of which was approved with 81 percent of the vote in a 2006 statewide referendum.
The case was one of constitutionality, challenging Alabama’s definition of a marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, and prompted Searcy and her attorneys, Kennedy and Christine Hernandez, to take the issue to federal court last May.
Last week, citing cases in other states, Granade ruled that Alabama’s laws violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of equal protection and due process by denying homosexual couples the right to marry, one that according to an increasing majority in the judicial system, is conclusively guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Answering the complaint, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange made the argument the state had a “legitimate interest in protecting the ties between children and their biological parents,” but Granade found both laws in question “did not fulfill that which what they were cited as protecting.”
“The Attorney General fails to demonstrate any rational, much less compelling, link between its prohibition and non-recognition of same-sex marriage and its goal of having more children raised in the biological family structure the state wishes to promote,” Granade wrote. “If anything, Alabama’s prohibition of same-sex marriage detracts from its goal of promoting optimal environments for children.”
She went on to find that “children of same-sex couples are just as worthy of protection and recognition by the state” as those parented by heterosexual couples.
Then, on Jan. 25, Granade cited Searcy v. Strange in a ruling favoring James Strawser, who likewise sued the state over its refusal to recognize his marriage to his partner John Humphrey. Granade’s ruling in that case again declared the state’s ban denies citizens a “fundamental right to marry.” Because the current laws prevent Strawser from listing his partner as his medical power of attorney, Granade said it has caused “irreparable harm that outweighs any injury” to the state.
Granade also applied a 14-day stay in that case, also scheduled to expire Feb. 9. Strange filed an appeal to the Strawser case Tuesday morning.
Subsequent stays and appeals
Almost immediately after the Searcy ruling, Strange submitted a request for a permanent stay. Had it not been denied by Granade, it would have prevented any same-sex marriages from being performed or recognized in Alabama until the Supreme Court possibly rules in a similar case later this summer.
Instead, Granade permitted a temporary stay expiring Feb. 9 in order to give the state the opportunity to appeal the decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Strange was also quick to request a permanent stay from that court, but so far, there has been no response.
According to Kennedy, Searcy and McKeand were “mildly disappointed” by the temporary stay, but were still optimistic.
“My clients certainly want to exercise their equal rights under the law and get this adoption finished, but they also are long-range adults and realize it’s only a two-week stay,” Kennedy said. “We hope that’s as long as it lasts, but Christine and I respect Judge Granade’s decision and will abide by whatever order she gives.”
In hopes of limiting the length of the court’s stay, Kennedy said the first order of business would be to file a response with the 11th Circuit to Strange’s request to extend it.
Kennedy said he and Hernandez “expect the 11th Circuit to follow Judge Granade’s take on the case,” which would be in line with a similar decision it made regarding same-sex marriages in Florida earlier in January.
“The Florida AG and the State of Florida were saying pretty much same thing in their appeal as Alabama, which is that ‘the fabric of society would come apart,’ essentially,” Kennedy said. “In reality, this is only allowing a segment of our population, not even a large segment, to do the same things heterosexual people do. This is not as sweeping of a change as it’s being made out to be by some.”
Kennedy said there’s no way of knowing whether the 11th Circuit might consider the appeal, but he hopes the court would realize the gravity of the case and take into consideration that his “clients have been waiting nine years” to be considered equal parents to their child.
However, some are arguing Searcy’s case could ultimately be a moot point, because the Supreme Court has scheduled a case about same-sex marriage it may hear as early as April. Kennedy said that’s something he and his clients would follow closely, but went on to say, “you never know what the Supreme Court is going to do.”
“Ultimately, that’s not our job,” Kennedy said. “It’s our job to litigate this case. The Supreme Court could legalize a certain recognition of gay marriage, but it’s all speculative when you’re talking about the future.”
Reaction to Granade’s ruling
On Friday, word of Granade’s ruling spread quickly through local, state and national media outlets, and a range of varied responses began immediately pouring in spanning from regular citizens on social media to those in the upper echelons of Alabama’s politics.
That same evening, a spokesperson for Gov. Robert Bentley issued a statement saying, “The people of Alabama voted in a constitutional amendment to define marriage between a man and a woman. The governor is disappointed with the ruling today, and we will review the decision to decide the next steps.”
In days since, Bentley has been largely quiet on the matter, but he has also been quoted as believing Alabama’s limited definition of marriage is “totally constitutional.”
Mike Hubbard, speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, was quick to lash out against Granade through his own social media avenues, but swiftly deleted his comments after Granade approved a two-week stay.
“It is outrageous when a single unelected and unaccountable federal judge can overturn the will of millions of Alabamians who stand in firm support of the Sanctity of Marriage Amendment,” he posted Friday.
Hubbard went on to speak for the Legislature saying it would encourage a “vigorous appeal” to protect Alabama’s “Christian values.”
In a statement to Bentley, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore said Granade’s decisions raised serious, legitimate concerns about the propriety of federal court’s jurisdiction over the Sanctity of Marriage Amendment, and said the federal government has no authority to redefine marriage in Alabama.
“The laws of this state have always recognized the Biblical admonition stated by our Lord,” Moore said, going on to quote from the Gospel of Mark. “Today the destruction of that institution is upon us by a federal court using specious pretexts based (on) clauses of the U.S. Constitution. If we are to preserve that ‘reverent morality, which is our source of all beneficent progress in social and political improvement,’ then we must act to oppose such tyranny.”
Moore claimed Alabama’s constitution and morality were “under attack by a federal court decision that has no basis in the Constitution of the United States,” and vowed to stand up to “judicial tyranny and any unlawful opinions issued without constitutional authority.”
Those sentiments are shared by many who claim the will of Alabama’s people shouldn’t be trumped by a single judge, but Kennedy said Granade — appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush in 2001 — is a “respected, conservative judge” who issued a “well-reasoned opinion” as to why she declared the state’s actions unconstitutional.”
“Like everybody, I love democracy and our right to vote and shape the laws under which we live, but its also important to keep in mind that sometime the majority will do things that infringe upon the rights of the minority,” Kennedy said. “Sometimes the laws passed by democratic vote are overly broad, and after we see how they impact people and the effect they have, its up to lawyers and judges to interpret what those laws mean and whether they pass basic constitutional scrutiny.”
Kennedy went on to point out how similar laws were crafted in the past to deny women and African Americans the right to vote and permitted acts like child labor, poll taxes and other things that have long since been confined to the pages of history books.
Though some were upset by the ruling, Searcy said she and McKeand celebrated by dancing with their son Khaya, who was conceived with the donation of a sperm donor.
“It’s been nine years, and we’ve been told over and over again, ‘it can’t be done here in Alabama, just wait on a federal ruling,’” Searcy said following Granade’s initial ruling. “We knew that it was possible and that if we presented the case in a smart, educated and strategic way, there was no way they could deny us, and that’s what happened. We’re very proud of Alabama tonight.”
Other couples, religious leader weigh in
Mary Knowles and Dawn Bordelon recently got married during a small ceremony in Pensacola Jan. 18, traveling first to Century, Florida to legally obtain a marriage license.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Knowles said. “Finally, now we can be a family in the eyes of the law.”
Knowles, 30, and Bordelon, 33, opted to bypass Pensacola assuming lines at the probate court might be too long in a border city that had just been permitted to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Driving on to the small Escambia County town of Century, Knowles said she and Bordelon were in and out the courthouse doors in just 10 minutes with an official marriage license in hand.
The couple said they were originally going to ask a county clerk to preside over a private ceremony, but once their friends and family heard the news, they insisted on participating.
With about 15 people in attendance at Pensacola’s Bayview Park, a friend of the couple married the two women in front of friends and family. Knowles carried a bouquet and Bordelon donned a traditional boutonniere for the impromptu wedding.
“It was really small and really thrown together, but it was really nice to be able to do that in a public, open setting and let our kids know that love is going to win,” she said.
The newlyweds were traveling to Louisiana to visit family when the news broke of Judge Granade effectively overturning the state’s ban on gay marriage.
“I checked Facebook and it was blowing up,” Knowles said. “It’s so crazy to get so excited over something that our neighbors can do five times over. It’s insane to get so excited over such a small thing (like marriage), but I don’t believe it’ll be small in the long run.”
Knowles said she and Bordelon had been paying close attention to cases in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, believing one of those Southern states would be next to legalize same-sex marriages — not Alabama. Knowles believed Alabama would be the last state to permit gay marriage.
“Alabama was a complete shocker,” she said. “We were completely surprised.”
Mobile native Travis Greene, 44, shared similar sentiments when he first saw the news online.
“I really thought it was some satire website,” he said. “I was very surprised to hear that Alabama had overturned (the ban). I really thought the Supreme Court was going to have to do it for us.”
Greene and his partner, Jeff Vice, 46, have been together for 17 years and like many other same-sex couples, have contemplated traveling to another state to get legally married. However, the pair ultimately decided to wait.
“We really wanted to be able to get married in Alabama,” he said. “We’ve always wanted to. I just want to make sure it’s recognized here. I wouldn’t want to go down there (to the courthouse), and think it’s finally happened and someone tell you ‘no.’ Jeff and I want to make sure that when it happens, it happens.”
Despite living in the South for his entire life, Greene said he has never felt oppressed for his sexuality, yet does admit feeling a tinge of jealousy toward same-sex couples who can freely and openly be married in the state in which they live.
“It’s like, ‘I wish I could do that here,’” he said.
Further, Greene said he is hopeful that his relationship may finally be recognized in Alabama.
“I want to get married like anyone else,” he said. “It’s just as important as a straight couple’s relationship. “Greene said he and Jeff experience the same problems every relationship faces like paying bills, having a bad day at work and other everyday issues that come with life.
“I never wanted to crusade for gay rights,” he added. “I want to crusade for equal rights.”
Mobile couple Katy Blankenhorn, 33, and Stephanie Grabowsky, 32, have been together since 2004 and recently wed in Pensacola on Jan. 8.
Having an unofficial wedding ceremony in 2008 without any legal documentation, the couple opted for a courthouse ceremony so the marriage could be recognized immediately.
“As the clerk read the words and we repeated after her, I felt like I was disconnected from myself for a minute,” Blankenhorn said. “We’d been married in our hearts and minds for so long, it was bizarre that only as of that minute were we finally legally wed … As we walked out, paper in hand, I didn’t really feel any different. Here was my family, same as we had been for so long now.
“With marriage equality on the horizon in Alabama, soon we’ll be able to legally be a family here in our home state as well,” Blankenhorn continued. “When the hospital asks if I’m married, I don’t have to pause and say, ‘Well not in Alabama, legally.’ Instead I can just say yes.”
According to Rev. Sandy O’Steen, pastor of Mobile’s Cornerstone Metropolitan Community Church, there are only six books in the entire Bible that speak on homosexuality, a word she claims didn’t even exist until 1890.
“I think it’s a human rights issue,” she said. “The church historically has been wrong and they’re wrong on this issue.”
Further, O’Steen said she urges anyone who condemns same-sex marriage to study the scriptures instead of simply taking things at face value.
“Don’t just believe what you’ve heard,” she said.
O’Steen has been a pastor for 20 years and has served at Cornerstone MCC for three. She was present in support of Searcy and McKeand at a press conference Monday. Cornerstone MCC is a Protestant Christian church with about 85 percent of the congregation part of the LGBT community.
“I don’t think any church should be afraid that gay people are going to walk in,” she said.
Knowles believes the ruling is a big win for the LGBT community and recognizes that in the eyes of the law, same-sex marriages are just like heterosexual marriages and eventually, everyone will be afforded equal rights.
“It means unity, equality,” she said. “Our son was so proud to go to school and announce that his parents were legally married just like every one of his other friends. I’ve just got so much hope for the next generation. They don’t see it as one side or the other. Love wins out, and it’s amazing to watch in our youth.”
Knowles’ recalled taking her 12-year-old biological son Payton to the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery two years ago to show him how far society had come from that point in time to the present day.
“He may be able to do that with his kids for the gay rights movement,” she said.
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