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News - November 1996

ACLU argues landmark gay rights case

ATLANTA -- In a breakthrough case seeking to protect lesbian and gay relationships, a Federal appeals court Oct. 23 heard oral argument in a case brought by a Georgia lawyer who was fired by the state Attorney General after she and her lesbian partner participated in a religious commitment ceremony.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed and continues to litigate the case, argued to the full 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the firing violated the lawyer's First Amendment right of intimate association, which guarantees an individual's right to maintain personal relationships free of government intrusion.

"No one should be fired simply because of their intimate personal relationships," said Ruth Harlow, who is representing the plaintiff for the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "This case seeks to affirm that the relationships of gay people are granted the same respect and constitutional protection as the relationships of all other government employees."

The plaintiff in the case, Robin Shahar, sued Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers when he rescinded a job offer in July 1991 after learning that Shahar was planning to undergo a Jewish marriage with her lesbian partner.

The ACLU's lawsuit led to a landmark decision by a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit, which ruled last December that Shahar's relationship is safeguarded by the "fundamental right of intimate association" and entitled to the highest level of judicial protection.

Judge John C. Godbold, who authored the opinion, wrote, "Though the religious-based marriage in which Shahar participated was not marriage in a civil, legal sense it was intimate and highly personal in the sense of affection, commitment, and permanency." He was joined by the two other judges, Phyllis A. Kravitch and Lewis R. Morgan, in finding that Shahar's right to intimate association had been infringed.

But the ruling, which was embraced by the ACLU as signaling a new measure of respect for lesbian and gay couples, was vacated by the full 11th Circuit, which decided on March 8 to rehear the case en banc, or before all 11-members of the court.

The argument today dealt mainly with whether Shahar's relationship is entitled to full constitutional protection as an intimate association. It also focused on whether the firing violated Shahar's right to equal protection and -- in light of the religious nature of the commitment -- her religious freedom.

"The right to hold a job should not hinge on whether your boss approves of your personal relationships," said Matt Coles, director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "Lesbian and gay relationships should have the same protection guaranteed to all Americans by the Constitution."

Shahar was a law clerk in the attorney's general office in 1990. When she graduated sixth in her class at Emory Law School, Bowers offered her a full-time job as an entry-level staff attorney for the Georgia Department of Law.

In withdrawing the offer, Bowers wrote, "This action has become necessary in light of information which has only recently come to my attention relating to a purported marriage between you and another woman. As chief legal officer of this state, inaction on my part would constitute tacit approval of this purported marriage and jeopardize the proper functioning of this office."

"I was extremely pleased with the three-judge panel's decision," said Shahar, who is now working at the city attorney's office in Atlanta. "I hope the full 11th Circuit will give me the same respect that the panel gave to me and my relationship."

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