The Shenandoah Valley is a major player in the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage Tuesday, when attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union argued in Harrisonburg's U.S. District Court to make their case a class-action lawsuit.
The ACLU is suing Governor Bob McDonnell, the Staunton Circuit Clerk Thomas E. Roberts and state registrar of vital records, Janet Rainey, on behalf of two lesbian couples who were denied marriage licenses. One of the couples shared their story with NBC29.
Joanne Harris and her partner, Jessica Duff, have been together for 12 years. They had a commitment ceremony in 2006 and together they're raising 4-year-old Jabari. When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act over the summer, they rushed to Staunton Circuit Court to finally make it official.
"It's really sad for someone to say 'no' when you want to legally be married,” Harris said.
The clerk said he could not approve their request because Virginia does not recognize their union. Harris and Duff attracted the attention of Lambda Legal and the ACLU.
Tuesday, their attorneys asked a judge in the Western District of Virginia to consider their request along with a series of motions.
"That laws concerning marriage in Virginia really affect almost every part of state government,” said Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of ACLU VA. “It affects how taxes are filed, it affects how adoptions are processed and granted, it affects how state employee benefits are allocated."
In the courtroom, the attorney general's office and the lawyer representing the clerk both asked to dismiss their clients as defendants, saying that they are not the appropriate people to sue. The state also challenged the ACLU's desire to apply the ruling to all same-sex couples living in Virginia on the grounds that courts cannot accurately identify the target group.
For same-sex couples like Harris and Duff, the case is about much more than love.
"Our story is not just Jessica and I; our story is indicative to same-sex couples across the state of Virginia, quite honestly, nationally. Everywhere,” Harris said.
From here, the judge will write a formal opinion deciding on each of these motions and explain the reasoning. The gay rights activists also asked the judge to rule right now that the bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. The judge will also consider that.