Plaintiffs Face Aftermath of Md. Court Decision

By Mary Otto and Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 18, 2007 11:16 PM

They hoped to be celebrating a legal victory. But instead, the gay and lesbian plaintiffs in Maryland's same-sex marriage lawsuit found themselves blinking back tears as they gathered on the steps of a stately old Baltimore church and faced the media yesterday afternoon.

Just hours before, their three-year legal battle had come to an end with a decision by the state's highest court to uphold the state's ban on gay marriage -- a decision for which there was no appeal.

"This is not the day we were hoping for," said Baltimore engineer Lisa Polyak, suppressing a sob.

Through their disappointment, however, they pledged to take their bid for gay marriage to the General Assembly. They said several legislators have agreed to sponsor a bill that would change the state's marriage laws to include gay couples.

"We're not going away," promised Polyak, a lead plaintiff among nine couples and a gay man who sued Maryland in 2004 for marriage rights. They say they seek no special privileges, only the same benefits married heterosexual couples enjoy -- spousal immigration and inheritance rights, the ability to obtain family insurance coverage and to care for each other during medical crises. In January 2006, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled in their favor, finding that the state's definition of marriage was discriminatory and could not withstand a constitutional challenge.

But the state appealed the decision. And yesterday, the state's highest court found that Maryland's ban on same-sex marriage does not violate the state constitution.

Partners and plaintiffs Patrick Wojahn and Dave Kolesar of College Park said they tried to prepare for the news but were still shocked and disappointed.

"I had gone through both scenarios for what they could decide over and over again," Wojahn, 32, said. "I was disappointed, but this isn't the first thing like this we've had to face."

Every time one of the two ends up in the hospital -- such as when Wojahn broke his foot doing a "little Russian dance" during their commitment ceremony -- they rely on the kindness of doctors, nurses and their families to see each other and make medical decisions. The couple joined the lawsuit because "marriage is ironclad," they said, and they want their union legally recognized.

"It's not over yet," Kolesar, 29, said. "We still have the legislature."

Polyak and her partner of more than 25 years, teacher Gita Deane, are raising two daughters, and Polyak described driving the girls to school yesterday morning, in the hours of anticipation before the seven judges of the state Court of Appeals released their decision.

Many of Polyak and Deane's neighbors had posted signs in their lawns in support that said "Marriage is a civil right." And on the way to school, the younger of the girls started to count them. The child, her mother recounted, said, "I hope they see enough signs to decide its okay."

Retirees Charles Blackburn and Glen Dehn of Baltimore, who have been partners for more than 28 years, said that in the days before the ruling they put aside their worries about being separated in a nursing home someday.

"We were planning our wedding all weekend," Blackburn said.

Off to the side of the plaintiffs, a man stood quietly and listened. He was Kevin-Douglas Olive, a middle school French teacher who had been following the progress of the same sex marriage case with more than just academic interest.

He said he received the news of yesterday's ruling in a flood of e-mails and phone calls during his planning period at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School in Baltimore. He cried, then called a substitute teacher to cover his classes and left for the day. He found himself drawn to the news conference.

Everything reminded Olive, 35, of the legal challenges that confronted him and his partner, the late Russell Groff.

The couple met in 1998 in Tennessee and moved to Baltimore County in 2000 because the public schools offered domestic partner benefits. Olive worked, Groff focused on his art, and the two married in 2003 in traditional Quaker fashion.

Then Groff, who was HIV positive, fell ill and died in 2004. He was buried according to his will in Olive's family plot in Tennessee -- an action Groff's estranged parents fought in court. A settlement reached last month allowed Groff to remain in the plot, but Olive's name was removed from the tombstone.

This week, Olive plans to meet with a group of Quaker elders and seek their advice: Should he stay in Maryland, which doesn't legally recognize the love he shared with Groff? Should he move?

"Do I want to stay in a state that would rather give into discrimination and an outdated definition of marriage?" he asked. "I'm a Christian. I understand where conservatives are coming from. But this is about protection . . . this is denying protection."

"I grew up in the South and thought if I moved north, things would be better. I feel like I keep getting pushed. Or maybe I'm running."

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