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The legal battle over gay marriage is moving south. Buoyed by federal court victories in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Virginia, gay rights activists are now focusing on states in the Deep South. There, traditional marriage laws still enjoy overwhelming public support.
As NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, this new front has conservatives looking for novel ways to fight back.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Paul Hard met David Fancher on July 4th, 2004.
PAUL HARD: Within three months, he was then asking me to marry him. I was a little shyer. It took me six years to say yes.
ELLIOTT: Because their native state, Alabama, has a constitutional amendment that forbids same-sex marriage, the couple traveled to Massachusetts, where they could be legally married.
HARD: And had every right to expect that we should be able to carry our rights as American citizens wherever we went. This is not someplace where you have your civil rights disappear at the state line.
ELLIOTT: But when tragedy struck two months later, Paul Hard learned otherwise. David Fancher was killed in a traffic accident. Hard had trouble getting information from the hospital. The funeral home marked Never Married on the death certificate. And he's prohibited from collecting any damages from a pending wrongful death lawsuit. Hard says he had all the spousal responsibilities but none of the rights.
HARD: I was David's spouse in every regard; when it came to paying the bills, arranging his burial, picking out the marker, everything that mattered.
ELLIOTT: Now, the Montgomery college professor is suing the state for violating his constitutional rights to equal protection and due process.
Alesdair Ittelson is an attorney with Southern Poverty Law Center.
ALESDAIR ITTELSON: It creates two classes of people under Alabama law. Men and women who are married, who are allowed to have their marriages be recognized. And, for example, Paul and David who were married but their marriage isn't recognized. And the United States Constitution says that you can't treat people differently.
STATE SENATOR SCOTT BEASON: Marriage has always been between a man and a woman. That's Western civilization. That's Christians' definition.
ELLIOTT: Alabama State Senator Scott Beason.
BEASON: So for someone to come along and decide that they want to change that definition and make it something else, I think we need to stay with what has served us very, very well in the West.
ELLIOTT: Beason, a Republican who is running for Congress, says gay rights activists have brought their fight to a region where they face the strongest resistance.
BEASON: The South is absolutely embedded and believes whole-heartedly in Christian principles. So they're just taking, you know, taking the tip of the spear to us. And unfortunately, I think that we should just be left alone. We're not talking about something that was simply passed by the legislature. We're talking about constitutional amendments voted on overwhelmingly by the people of the state.
ELLIOTT: More than 80 percent of Alabama voters approved the Sanctity of Marriage Amendment. Similar majorities banned same-sex marriages in other Deep South states, including Mississippi and Louisiana. Challenges are now pending there, as well. In Mississippi, by a lesbian who is suing to have the state recognize her marriage so that she can legally get a divorce. And in Louisiana, by four same-sex couples seeking equal protection and free speech in matters ranging from taxes to adoption.
NICK VAN SICKELS: For us, it's about our daughter.
ELLIOTT: Nick Van Sickels, a New Orleans doctor, and his partner Andrew Bond a teacher, were legally married in Washington, D.C. They adopted a baby girl, but only Van Sickels is listed as her father on the birth certificate. In Louisiana, Andrew Bond has no parental rights.
ANDREW BOND: Each year we have to fill out a legal form that Nick surrenders powers so that I can make educational decisions. Health care related kind of stuff.
ELLIOTT: Gay right advocates, like Chris Otten, with the Forum for Equality in Louisiana, believes the constitutional challenges in federal court have momentum.
CHRIS OTTEN: These laws are falling across the country. And what's going to happen, unfortunately for those that live in the Deep South, you can't have 47 states that allow same-sex marriage and three states that hold out.
ELLIOTT: But leaders of those states also invoke the Constitution. During a speech in California last week, Republican Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana defended the rights of states to reject gay marriage as a matter of faith. He calls the legal battles an assault on the freedom of religion.
GOVERNOR BOBBY JINDAL: It is a war. A silent war but it is a war against religious liberty. This war is waged in our courts and in the halls of political power.
ELLIOTT: In Alabama, Chief Justice Roy Moore says the moral foundation of the country is under attack. Moore has launched a campaign for a Marriage Preservation Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Attorney Gabriel Smith, with Moore's group, the Foundation for Moral Action, says federal judges have overstepped their authority
GABRIEL SMITH: What we've stepped into now is tyranny. And we're forcing states to accept something that they find morally reprehensible.
ELLIOTT: While the legal battle over gay marriage plays out in the federal courts, some states are also looking to legalize discrimination against gay couples on religious grounds. Similar bills have been introduced in Congress.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.