September 1, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Gay couple files federal lawsuit attacking SC’s Defense of Marriage Law

Two Lexington County women who were legally married in Washington, D.C., have filed a federal lawsuit in Columbia challenging South Carolina’s Defense of Marriage Law and a 2006 amendment to the State Constitution that expressly banned same-sex marriages.

Two Lexington County women who were legally married in Washington, D.C., have filed a federal lawsuit in Columbia challenging South Carolina’s Defense of Marriage Law and a 2006 amendment to the state Constitution that expressly banned same-sex marriages.

The lawsuit, brought by S.C. Highway Patrol Trooper Katherine Bradacs and Tracie Goodwin, was filed in U.S. District Court in Columbia last week.

Judge Joe Anderson, a veteran judge who has presided in numerous high-profile civil and criminal cases, has been named to hear arguments in the case, which will be heard without a jury.

Defendants in the case are Gov. Nikki Haley and State Attorney General Alan Wilson, both in their official capacities.

The lawsuit not only takes aim at a state law and a constitutional amendment passed by majorities, but it squarely confronts a long-standing and deep-rooted social, religious and political culture of a majority of South Carolinians who oppose gay rights, even as the idea of such rights gains increasing legitimacy elsewhere.

“This suit is really about equal treatment of all South Carolina citizens under the law,” said John Nichols, the Columbia attorney who with Carrie Warner of Columbia represents the plaintiffs. “We should value people who want to live in a committed relationship, regardless of gender.”

Neither Haley nor Wilson could be reached for comment.

In 1996, the .S.C. House of Representatives approved the S.C. Defense of Marriage Law by an 82-0 vote. The Senate voted to approve it in a voice vote. Then-Gov. David Beasley signed it into law. It says, “A marriage between persons of the same sex is void ab initio (from the start) and against the public policy of this state.”

In 2006, voters in the general election approved an amendment to the state Constitution banning same-sex marriage by a 78-22 percent margin. Some 829,360 people voted to approve the amendment; 234,316 voted against it. In Lexington County, where Bradacs and Goodwin live, people voted 80 percent to 20 percent to approve the ban.

The lawsuit also asks Anderson to grant an injunction prohibiting South Carolina from enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act and the section of the state Constitution that bans same-sex marriages. The state Constitution also prohibits same-sex marriages that are legal in other states from being recognized in South Carolina.

No hearing has been set. 

“Although plaintiffs Bradacs and Goodwin were legally married in the District of Columbia on April 6, 2012 . . . they are treated as legal strangers in their home state of South Carolina,” their lawsuit says. 

In the lawsuit, Bradacs is described as “a public employee.” Goodwin is described as “80 percent disabled from the U.S. Air Force and receives benefits from the Veterans Administration.” The suit says they are “in a long-term committed relationship.”

The lawsuit says that the U.S. Constitution guarantees Bradacs and Goodwin the right to have the same rights as married heterosexual couples and that South Carolina’s exclusion of same-sex couples “adversely impacts the plaintiffs and same-sex couples across South Carolina by excluding them from the many legal protections available to spouses.”

The suit also says that “lesbian and gay police officers, firefighters and other first responders are denied the peace of mind of knowing that if they make the ultimate sacrifice, their partner will be taken care of through the financial support available to help those who lost their spouses in service to the community.”

The suit also says that Bradacs and Goodwin’s children “are stigmatized and relegated to a second-class status.”

It also says, “Same-sex couples such as the plaintiff couple are identical to opposite-sex couples in all of the characteristics relevant to marriage.”

The suit was filed in federal court because it raises federal questions. 

In recent years, and this year, gay rights and same-sex marriages are becoming increasingly accepted by the courts and the federal government.

Gays can now openly serve in the U.S. military. The federal government announced Friday that all same-sex couples who are legally married will be recognized as such for federal taxes. In June, a U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act. 

In their lawsuit, Bradacs and Goodwin cite the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and say that court “made it clear” that “neither tradition nor moral disapproval of same-sex relationships or marriage for lesbian and gay couples is a legitimate basis for unequal treatment of same-sex couples under the law.” Excluding same-sex couples from marrying is “not a legitimate government interest,” the suit says.

A lawsuit backed by the ACLU similar to Bradacs’ and Goodwin’s was filed earlier in July in Pennsylvania. Like the S.C. suit, that suit named the governor and the state attorney general as defendants.

However, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane has said she would refuse to defend that state’s ban on gay marriage in court because it is, she said, unconstitutional.

Around the country, same-sex marriage is legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia. It is banned in 35 states, and two states have no policies, according to news reports.

Attorney Nichols represented Lillian McBride, the former Richland County elections director, in a recent highly-publicized battle over the mismanaged November 2012 election. Although McBride was demoted and given a pay decrease, Nichols helped her keep a prominent post with a still-substantial salary.

Judge Anderson, 63, a Clemson graduate, is a native of Edgefield County. A member of the S.C. House from 1980-86, he was nominated to the federal bench in 1986 and backed by then-U.S. Sens. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and Fritz Hollings, D-S.C.


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