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Bedford County native files lawsuit challenging Virginia's same-sex marriage ban

Published On: Aug 01 2013 12:26:18 PM EDT   Updated On: Aug 01 2013 09:40:51 PM EDT

One of the people involved is from our area


Virginia's ban on same sex marriage is being challenged in court.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Lamda Legal officially filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday morning Harrisonburg in an effort to take down Virginia's constitutional amendment that keeps gays and lesbians from getting married.

These suits are being filed on behalf of two couples, both of whom live in the Shenandoah Valley. Both have been in relationships for years and both are raising children.

Joanne Harris has gone from living on a Bedford County farm to working as a college administrator.

"I am an everyday woman," said Harris, a graduate of Liberty High School in Bedford who now lives in Staunton.  "I'm working hard.  I come from hard working parents."

She's been with her partner, Jessica Duff, for 11 years.  Together they're raising a son.

"We go to tee ball games and soccer games," Harris said.  "We're supporting our nieces and nephews."

They lead a normal life, but face a reality most couples don't.

Harris has Epilepsy, which could put her in a coma or cause her to die.  She worries Jessica won't have the legal ability to make important decisions for her or their son.

"I think when people understand that and they get what our trials are, they will support marriage equality," said Harris.

Harris and Duff are joining another couple from Winchester in the ACLU's federal lawsuit.  They're challenging the state's refusal to recognize gay marriages performed in other states.

"Is the jurisdiction of the Federal government going to force its way over the strongly expressed will of the people of Virginia?" said Steve Crampton, an attorney specializing in constitutional law.

Crampton works for Liberty Counsel, a legal group that opposes same sex marriage.  He believes the issue should be left up to voters, not judges.

"It is wholly within the purview of states to define for themselves what marriage will be in that state," argues Crampton.

He believes Virginia solidified its position on marriage in 2006, when 57% of voters passed a state amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

The ACLU believes attitudes have changed since then, but they don't believe they can get the issue back on the ballot.  That's because voter referendums have to be passed by the General Assembly, which leans conservative.

"We have no meaningful way opportunity to change the law, through the legislative process, certainly for the foreseeable future," said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director for the ACLU of Virginia.

The parties in Virginia's same sex marriage case are hoping for a win in Virginia, but say they're prepared to take their lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court.

It takes an average of three to four years for a case to make it through district courts and the appeals process before reaching the high court in Washington.