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Gwinnett couple leading lawsuit challenging Georgia's gay marriage law

Snellville residents Christopher Inniss and Shelton Stroman, pictured here with son Jonathan, are the lead plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s gay marriage ban. Inniss and Stroman have been a couple for 13 years. (Facebook photo)

Snellville residents Christopher Inniss and Shelton Stroman, pictured here with son Jonathan, are the lead plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s gay marriage ban. Inniss and Stroman have been a couple for 13 years. (Facebook photo)

A Snellville veterinarian and his partner are leading a federal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s ban on gay marriage.

Christopher Inniss, 39, and Shelton Stroman, 41, are the lead plaintiffs on the complaint filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. They join two other couples and a widow in the class action suit seeking the right for same-sex marriages to be both performed and recognized in Georgia.

“Shelton and I have been together for 13 years,” Inniss said in a statement. “We own a home together, we own a business together, and we are raising our son, Jonathan, together. We have done everything we can to protect and take responsibility for our family but marriage is the only way to ensure that we are treated as the family that we are. We need the protection that marriage affords.”

Inniss is chief of staff at Banfield Pet Hospital in Loganville. Stroman manages Snellville Pet Resort, a business the couple started together.

The Gwinnettians are joined in the suit by: Rayshawn and Avery Chandler, both officers with the Atlanta Police Department; Michael Bishop and Shane Thomas, an attorney and realtor, respectively, from Atlanta; and Decatur resident Jennifer Sisson, whose partner recently passed away after battling ovarian cancer.

The suit names as defendants Deborah Aderhold, Georgia’s state registrar and director of vital records; Gwinnett County Probate Court Clerk Brook Davidson; and Fulton County Probate Court Judge Pinkie Toomer.

The filing, represented by national organization Lambda Legal, calls for “injunctive and declaratory relief” and argues that the state of Georgia “cannot condition marriage on the sex of spouses.”

“Every day that same-sex couples in Georgia are denied freedom to marry, the government sends a message that their families are not worthy of dignity and respect,” Tara Borelli, senior attorney in Lambda Legal’s southern regional office, said in a statement. “Georgians believe in the Southern values of love, honor and family, but as long as the State of Georgia continues to bar same-sex couples from marriage, it devalues these families and reinforces unfairness and discrimination.”

Davidson was included as a defendant in the suit based on a member of her office refusing Inniss and Shelton’s marriage license application last week. Requests for comment on her behalf were not immediately returned Tuesday.

The law in question came in the form of 2004 amendment to the Georgia Constitution.

“This state shall recognize as marriage only the union of man and woman,” it said. “Marriages between persons of the same sex are prohibited in this state.”

The amendment also prohibits from same-sex couples from receiving “the benefits of marriage,” which can include the ability to make medical decisions on a spouse’s behalf, the receipt of survivor benefits and the ability to file for joint income tax returns. Legal complications can also arise when it comes to custody of children and parental rights, Tuesday’s filing said.

Georgia also does not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Such marriages are legal in 17 states and in Washington, D.C.

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said in a statement that there are more than 21,000 same-sex couples in Georgia.

“Georgia is our home,” Inniss said. “Our family is here, our business is here, and our community here is a great support for us.”