St. Albans couple Jane Fenton (left) and Nancy Michael and their 6-year-old son, Drew, are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging West Virginia's ban on gay and lesbian marriage.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Casie McGee and Sarah Adkins want to live without fear of medical bills.Justin Murdock and William Glavaris want to fulfill the promise they made to each other last February.Nancy Michael and Jane Fenton want their 6-year-old son, Drew, to be secure no matter what happens to either of them.All three couples want marriage equality for same-sex couples in West Virginia, and are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Southern West Virginia. Lambda Legal, a national civil rights organization, announced Tuesday it had filed the suit at a news conference held Tuesday in Huntington.
"Every day that same-sex couples in West Virginia are denied the freedom to marry, the government sends a message that they are second-class citizens and their families are not worthy of equal dignity and respect," said Beth Littrell, an attorney for Lambda Legal. "West Virginia's state motto, 'Mountaineers are always free,' is hollow until all West Virginians - no matter who they love - have the freedom to marry."Lambda Legal and its partners, Tinney Law Firm and Jenner and Block, argue that West Virginia's marriage ban unfairly discriminates against same-sex couples and their children, and send a purposeful message that lesbians, gay men, and their children are second-class citizens, Littrell said.McGee said when Adkins was diagnosed with diabetes last winter, she felt powerless.The couple, who had dated for more than three years, ended up in the emergency room last year after Adkins' blood sugar spiked.They paid out of pocket for her care. McGee, an assistant professor of mathematics at Mountwest Community and Technical College, has health insurance that could cover an emergency room visit; Adkins does not."In addition to sitting by her bed, worrying about all the things that can happen when your blood sugar gets that high -- which I found out later includes stroke, coma and possibly death -- I also had to worry about how we were going to pay for this, and that's not fair, either. Sarah's my family," McGee said. "As family, you want to take care of each other, and we just keep running into these roadblocks."
In June, in a 5-4 decision, U.S. Supreme Court justices struck down a key piece of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that a provision that denied benefits to legally married gay couples is unconstitutional.Also, in another 5-4 decision, the court cleared the way for gay marriage to resume in California by ruling that supporters of Proposition 8, a gay marriage ban, didn't have legal standing to challenge a lower court that overturned the law.West Virginia doesn't recognize same-sex marriage licenses from other states. Also, the state's Human Rights Act doesn't include sexual orientation as one of the protected categories from housing and employment discrimination. State lawmakers have rejected several recent attempts to include gays and lesbians in the state's discrimination laws.For Michael, 43, and Fenton, 45, of St. Albans, state law means they have been forced to pay for alternate documents to protect their family, but have not been able to secure the same privileges and protections given to married couples. The couple has been together for 16 years, but Fenton is not recognized as Drew's legal parent, and only Michael's name appears on his birth certificate."We have done everything we can to protect and take responsibility for family, but we worry all the time that it isn't enough," said Michael, a lifelong West Virginian. "We need the protection that marriage affords."
According to a story in the Sunday Gazette-Mail earlier this year, Michael and Fenton underwent a double-blind anonymous donor process to conceive their son. Fenton said at the time that the paperwork -- to give her power of attorney for Michael during her hospitalization and to make her Drew's legal guardian -- was almost as expensive as having Drew in the first place.The couple said they had not planned to bring their son to Tuesday's news conference, but he told them he wanted to say something on their behalf."It is not fair that my two mommies cannot get married," Drew said as his mother held him up to the microphone.According to the 2010 Census, there are nearly 3,000 same-sex couples living in West Virginia. More than 500 of those couples are raising children.Casey Willits, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, the state's largest LGBT advocacy organization, said the organization, which has been fighting primarily to address housing and employment discrimination laws in West Virginia, was firmly behind the lawsuit."We may not know from the courts whether same-sex couples can marry in West Virginia for two or more years, but when the word finally comes down, we must ensure that all those couples are protected at work and at home," Willits said.
Murdock, 32, and Glavaris, 31, of Huntington, have dated for more than two years and were born and raised in West Virginia. When Murdock proposed to Glavaris, he said marriage was the only word that described what they meant to one another - and their home state was the only place they wanted to be married."I'm tired of the soft discrimination we're met with every day because we can't use the same terminology other couples can," Murdock said. "People say, 'why don't you just go out of state and get married?' We don't want to do that. Will was raised in Logan County. I was raised in Wayne County. We've been in West Virginia our whole lives. We love this state."We work hard to make this state a good and a better place to live for ourselves, our family and for our friends, and it would hurt to go out of state just to come home and not have our relationship recognized for what it is."According to Littrell, a West Virginia native, Lambda Legal has filed dozens of other suits on behalf of same sex couples, including in Illinois, New Jersey and Virginia, and said she believes the West Virginia lawsuit has a good chance of being successful. Lambda was successful in helping to overturn the same-sex marriage ban in Iowa in 2009, and have had other successes in similar suits."I think that West Virginians, regardless of their religious views, have a deep and ingrained sense of fairness, so that when they are exposed to the fact there is a fundamental unfairness in the state, they will want to rectify that," said Jack Tinney of the Charleston-based Tinney Law Firm.Adkins said she and McGee, both West Virginians, have discussed getting married for a long time, and both want their union to take place in the Mountain State - ideally, in the backyard of Adkins' parents, where she promised her mother they would marry."She told me when I was a little girl, 'Oh, Sarah, please let me make your wedding dress when you get married,'" Adkins said. "She might have to slightly modify the dress thing, but this is home. This will always be home."Reach Lydia Nuzum at email@example.com or 304-348-5189.