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Suit seeks to spread Massachusetts 'marriage'

Two lesbians filed the first lawsuit in the nation to force the federal government and other states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts.

Rev. Nancy Wilson and Paula Schoenwether, who traveled to Provincetown, Mass., in May to get married, are now seeking recognition of their license in Florida. They claim exclusion of homosexual couples violates the U.S. Constitution’s right to equal protection under the law and the implicit “right to privacy.”

Seven years ago, however, the Florida Legislature, like many throughout the nation, passed a law defining marriage as a bond between one man and one woman.

The suit also is a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which says no state is required to recognize “a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other state, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship.”

Mat Staver, who drafted Florida’s Defense of Marriage Act, says the effect of the decision by four of the seven Massachusetts judges last November now is spreading to other states.

At least 46 states now have people who have obtained a Massachusetts same-sex marriage license, he points out, and soon litigation will occur in those states.

“The Florida case underscores why we need a Federal Marriage Amendment in order to maintain our long-standing and common sense tradition of marriage,” said Staver, president and general counsel of Florida-based Liberty Counsel.

The Senate last week effectively killed the first attempt at an amendment by rejecting a move by Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennesee to end debate and vote on it. Republicans garnered 48 votes in favor of cloture, far short of the 60 needed.

Liberty Counsel, which helped defend the first two challenges brought against the federal DOMA, in Georgia and Connecticut, filed a motion yesterday to intervene in the Florida case.

The public-interest law firm says it is defending traditional marriage in 20 separate suits nationwide.

The Florida suit cites the full faith and credit clause in the U.S. Constitution requiring states to honor other states “public acts.”

“If Massachusetts recognizes same-gender marriages with all the legal rights, privileges and immunities of different-sex marriages, Florida should be obliged to recognize the full scope of legal rights bestowed upon them under Massachusetts law,” the lawsuit states.

The suit names as defendants Hillsborough Clerk of Court Richard Ake, who declined to file the couple’s Massachusetts license, and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The two women want all the rights of heterosexual couples, including Social Security, health, pension and tax benefits.

But Schoenwether told the St. Petersburg Tribune the issue is much larger.

“It’s also about being treated like full human beings,” she said.

David Caton, head of Florida Family Association, told the Tribune the argument opens the door for other groups of people to try to marry, such as pedophiles with youngsters, brothers with sisters and adults with three or four others.

“I don’t see where John Ashcroft or the federal government has the position to say what marriages Florida should recognize,” he said.

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