PHOTOS: Standing up for Why Marriage Matters at Lexington, Kentucky Town Hall

With just over a month until the United States Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the freedom to marry on April 28 in several cases (including a case from Kentucky), Freedom to Marry and the Campaign for Southern Equality were proud to partner on two "Why Marriage Matters" Town Hall events this week, on March 17 and 18 in Lexington and Louisville, respectively. 

At last night's event in Lexington, Freedom to Marry founder and president Evan Wolfson was proud to stand with the on-the-frontlines advocates in Kentucky, who have been hard at work litigating Bourke v. Beshear and Love v. Beshear, which will both be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this April, alongside other marriage cases from Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee. Members of the legal teams at Fauver Law Office (Shannon Fauver and Dawn Elliott) and Clay, Daniel Walton & Adams (Dan Canon), plus many of the plaintiffs represented in the cases (Michael DeLeon and Greg Bourke; Tammy Boyd and Kim Franklin; Randell Johnson and Paul Campion; Col. Luke Meade and Jim Meade; Tim Love and Larry Ysunza; and Dominique James and Rev. Maurice "Bojangles" Blanchard) were in attendance to share their stories and speak with the local community on what's next for the marriage fight. The American Civil Liberties Union and Stanford Law School's Supreme Court Litigation Clinic are also proudly serving as co-counsel in the Kentucky marriage cases. 

Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign in Kentucky, also spoke about the fight for equality in KY on the panel, and Josh Mers of Lexington Fairness - with dozens of other members of Lexington Fairness - met with supporters in the room throughout the night. Djuan Trent, an honorary co-chair for our Southerners for the Freedom to Marry campaign, attended with her girlfriend. The discussion was moderated by Campaign for Southern Equality's Aaron Sarver, and the event kicked off with an interfaith prayer by Rev. Woody Berry, head of staff at Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church in Lexington. 

More than one hundred Kentuckians attended the Town Hall event.

The Power of Personal Stories

Michael DeLeon and Greg Bourke, named plaintiffs in the Kentucky marriage case who have been together for 33 years, were panelists at last night's event in Lexington, supported by many of their fellow plaintiffs, including Tim Love and Tammy Boyd. They spoke about their personal story and why they felt compelled to join in filing a case seeking the freedom to marry in Kentucky.

"After the Windsor ruling in June 2013, we were wondering who was going to file a marriage case here in Kentucky," Michael said. Eventually, the couple - who married in Canada years before - connected with Fauver Law Office, met with attorneys Shannon Fauver and Dawn Elliott, and prepared a case alongside three other plaintiffs. With Clay Walton Daniel & Adams signed on as co-counsel, the team litigated their case in federal court, and in February 2014 they received a powerful ruling striking down Kentucky's laws denying respect for marriages between same-sex couples legally performed in other states. Later, the team added two other unmarried plaintiff couples to the case and again, in July 2014, received a ruling striking down KY's ban altogether.

"When we started this process, we wanted to make sure our children were on board," Greg explained, citing his two children's involvement in the case both as plaintiffs and outspoken advocates in their community. "The case has brought our family closer together. We filed this case because we wanted to improve our own personal lives and we needed to help move Kentucky forward."

One of the compelling reasons Greg and Michael know that they need respect for their marriage in Kentucky is because only one of them, Michael, is legally respected as their children's parent. Michael is officially the adoptive father, leaving the men to draw up additional paperwork for Greg to have some connection of guardianship over their kids, Bella and Isaiah. Greg is not respected as the father of the children he has raised for sixteen years.

Read all of the Kentucky plaintiff profiles, including Greg and Michael's, at the ACLU's website.

Pushing for the Freedom to Marry in the Courts

Shannon Fauver and Dan Canon represented the legal team for Bourke v. Beshear and Love v. Beshear on the panel in Lexington. 

Shannon spoke on behalf of herself and her colleague, Dawn Elliott, at Fauver Law Office. "As lawyers, we both went to school to help people," she explained. "We saw filing this marriage case in Kentucky as a way to help our community." She explained that she and Dawn discussed the possibility of filing the case the day that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, a ruling that many saw as one that made it clear that marriage bans are unconstitutional - and that supporters of the freedom to marry could win in court.

Now, Shannon, Dawn, Dan Canon (at Clay Walton Daniel & Adams) and their colleagues at the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Kentucky are eagerly awaiting the oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court on April 28. A ruling is expected by late June. Dan explained that one of the elements of the prepartions now is working on the best arguments to convince the Supreme Court to rule on heightened scrutiny, which would establish that government distinctions based on sexual orientation cannot stand up in court. 

"We don't know what the Supreme Court will rule," Dan said. "But we know what the right decision is. We know that we are on the right side of history with this case."

Kentucky's Important Role in the National Movement

Freedom to Marry founder and president Evan Wolfson spoke more broadly about the national context for the freedom to marry in Kentucky.

"Why are we now winning in the courts?" he asked, explaining that for decades, same-sex couples and the people who support them have been making the case for the legal respect of their loving, committed relationships. Evan quoted a line from a landmark marriage decision out of Utah in December 2013, in Kitchen v. Herbert, where U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby wrote, "Here, it is not the Constitution that has changed, but the knowledge of what it means to be gay or lesbian."

"Courts should always do the right thing," Evan said. "But if winning were as simple as making a good argument and filing a good brief, then we would have won the freedom to marry 40 years ago. We must put the legal work next to the public education work next to the legislative work next to the organizing work, and that's what's brought us so far. What wins the case is the collective presentation that the plaintiffs, the lawyers, the "friends-of-the-court," and all of us are making. The way we got here is through the work of a movement committed to getting this job done."

He also shared that Kentucky is where he began his career as a gay rights lawyer, litigating his very first gay rights case as a volunteer for Lambda Legal. "Kentucky has a special place in my heart," he said. "I represented a guy who worked for a bank in Louisville, and he was the head of his local chapter of Dignity & Integrity. He was fired from the bank, and Lamdba Legal wanted to fight back. But as you know, there was no - and is not still - protection for discrimination against gay people. So we sued Kentucky on the basis of of religious discrimination, and we went to court, and we won. Then we went to the 6th Circuit - so my very first federal appellate argument was in front of your favorite 6th Circuit in a case here out of Kentucky." Evan was referencing the loss for Bourke v. Beshear - and the other marriage cases out of OH, MI, and TN - at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit back in November, the loss that is now under review by the United States Supreme Court.  "I'm counting on Dan and Shannon to take it further and do better than I did on that case," Evan laughed.

The Continued Work Ahead

The panel also brought up questions and discussion about the broader LGBT movement in Kentucky. Fairness Campaign's Chris Hartman spoke about the important grassroots organizing that the Fairness Campaign does in Kentucky, working to establish non-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBT people from being unfairly fired, denied housing, and denied other protections based on who they are or who they love. The discussion prompted questions about potential negative retaliations from opponents of the freedom to marry.

"I think we can all agree that we're not done after we win marriage," Evan Wolfson said about the movement. "There is a struggle between different visions over what kind of community Kentucky should be. Those of us who see an inclusive, welcoming, fair Kentucky do our work, and it is a struggle against those who do not. But the marriage battle and the hopeful win gives us more to work with. And so I prefer to look at this 'backlash' as our opponents' last-gas attempts to cling to the wrong vision of what kind of community Kentucky should be."

Aaron Sarver of the Campaign for Southern Equality added that overwhelmingly in southern states, there has been very little negative outcomes of marriage laws - and that overwhelmingly, states comply with the law. "When we won marriage in South Carolina, the only thing that happened was a lot of weddings," he said. He also added that through the Campaign for Southern Equality's work, they've seen strong, new, fervent support for the LGBT community, with wonderful organizing from local advocates. "We're seeing community support sprout up and be visible for the LGBT community. Sometimes people view marriage as a narrow conversation, but I think it opens up a broad conversation about what it means to be gay."

Looking Ahead to the Spring

Now, the Kentucky legal team - and legal teams across the country - are readying their cases for the United States Supreme Court, while supporters nationwide must continue doing everything we can in the next few months, making the final case for why marriage matters to same-sex couples. 

Evan called on the audience to keep pushing for the freedom to marry, and that the job is not over until we've won at the U.S. Supreme Court. "Building a civil rights movement is not easy," he said. "It doesn't happen overnight. But if we can get to 63% of Americans who support the freedom to marry (up from the 27% who supported back in the 90s), then we can get Kentucky there. If America can get there, then so can Kentucky."

"The country is moving forward - but only if we keep moving them," Evan Wolfson said, agreeing that there is much work to do even after we win the freedom to marry nationwide. "That's why we're called a movement. We're not done until we have won everything for everyone. There is no marriage without engagement."

Join us on Thursday for a recap of the event in Louisville, Kentucky.