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Snellville couple at center of suit challenging Georgia’s gay marriage ban

Shelton Stroman, left, Christopher Inniss and 9-year-old son Jonathan pose for a portrait inside their Snellville-area home. Stroman and Inniss have been a couple for 13 years and are the lead plaintiffs on a recently filed suit challenging Georgia’s ban on same-sex marriages. (Staff Photo: Tyler Estep)

Shelton Stroman, left, Christopher Inniss and 9-year-old son Jonathan pose for a portrait inside their Snellville-area home. Stroman and Inniss have been a couple for 13 years and are the lead plaintiffs on a recently filed suit challenging Georgia’s ban on same-sex marriages. (Staff Photo: Tyler Estep)

SNELLVILLE — Nine-year-old Jonathan Inniss sits on the couch and thinks hard about the words he’s about to use, the thought he wants to convey. He’s wearing jeans and a Tommy Hilfiger polo shirt striped with orange, blue and white. Close on either side are his dads — yes, plural.

After several seconds of silence, Jonathan speaks.

“I think that my dads should be able to get married because they’re basically not different from anybody else,” the third-grader says. “They can do the same things, and they are able to have the same jobs. They can do anything they want in life.”

Jonathan’s dads are Christopher Inniss and Shelton Stroman, the chief of staff at Loganville’s Banfield Pet Hospital and the owner/manager at Snellville Pet Resort, respectively. Their relationship started 13 years ago when Inniss, a naturalized American citizen from Guyana, moved to Atlanta for a post-graduate internship. At the urging of mutual friends, they went to dinner (Ruby Tuesday) and a movie (“The Scorpion King”), and have been together ever since.

Jonathan was adopted shortly after his birth at a Louisiana military hospital. Stroman cut his umbilical cord.

The family, most things considered, is just like the other young families in their well-kept, quiet-but-friendly neighborhood near Snellville.

It’s also at the forefront of Georgia’s gay marriage fight.

‘The batting percentage has been pretty high’

On April 22, a group called Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. The document challenges Georgia’s ban on same-sex marriage, as well as its lack of recognition for similar unions forged elsewhere.

Inniss and Stroman are the lead plaintiffs in the class-action suit and are joined by two other gay couples and a widow: 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.

In essence, the 49-page document claims that Georgia’s 2004 amendment limiting marriage to opposite sex couples is discriminatory and violates the 14th Amendment rights of the gay community. It argues that, among other things, the ban denies gay couples “the benefits of marriage,” which include the ability to make medical decisions on a spouse’s behalf and the ability to file joint income taxes; it also cited legal complications that it creates while raising children.

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

An employee in the latter’s office recently denied Inniss and Stroman’s application for a marriage license.

“Us getting married does not infringe on anyone else’s rights,” Inniss said. “People always talk about that, like it’s hurting their marriage … We also feel that we should have the same protections (as opposite sex couples). We pay taxes, we do everything just like everyone else, but we don’t get the benefits.”

Said Stroman: “It’s my human right.”

Same-sex marriages are legal in 17 states and Washington, D.C. According to FreedomToMarry.org, there are currently 65 legal cases pending in 31 other states.

The path to most of that litigation was paved last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court essentially ruled that the federal government had to recognize marriages performed in states where same-sex unions had been legalized. The court’s decision did not demand that individual states lift their bans but “clearly left the door wide-open,” University of Georgia law professor Hillel Levin said.

Levin is a graduate of Yale University law school and has taught classes specifically covering same-sex marriage litigation across the country. He said the odds are “at least pretty good” that the suit filed in Georgia will be successful.

Just this year, federal judges have ruled gay marriage bans in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Virginia, Texas and Michigan were unconstitutional, though many of those decisions have been stayed pending expected appeals.

“It’s hard to predict how a particular judge will rule in Georgia,” Levin said, “but the batting percentage has been pretty high.”

The arguments on both sides of the issue have been made for decades. Though the debate is a heated, often venomous one, litigation is fairly straightforward, Levin said.

“There aren’t really any facts in dispute here,” he said. “It’s just a pure legal question.”

‘I only have one worry’

Ten years ago in Las Vegas, on Stroman’s birthday, Inniss dropped to one knee and proposed.

The gesture was a serious one, if not open-ended. Then or in ensuing years, the couple never considered leaving Georgia to get married. Other options didn’t, and don’t, exist.

“I didn’t think that far ahead,” Inniss says. “Basically, it was mostly a commitment to say that somehow, whether we’re married or not, that I wanted to be together.”

Now that commitment is in the public eye, and the typically private, notoriously “boring” couple is in a place it’s never been.

Asked if he’s happy that his dads have put themselves in the spotlight in a quest to bring same-sex marriage to Georgia, Jonathan says yes, then pauses.

“I only have one worry about that, is what could happen,” he says matter-of-factly. “What people would do. I don’t know. … I think they might hurt them or something.”

The thought has no doubt crossed their minds, though to hear it from the mouth of a babe — their babe — seems to take Inniss and Stroman aback. Huddled on the couch, in a comfortable home tucked away on a peaceful Gwinnett street, they offer comfort.

“Don’t worry,” one dad says, quietly.

“We’ll be OK,” says the other.