ATLANTA (AP) — Less than two weeks after a federal judge declared Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, a new effort has been launched in the South seeking to build wider acceptance of gay and lesbian couples in the hope of overturning similar bans across the region.
The $1 million effort will be focused on field organizing and sharing the stories of gay couples through local community and business events as well as social media in 14 Southern states.
The key, supporters say, will be to share stories like those of Linda Ellis and her partner, Lesley Brogan, who appeared at Monday's event. The two have been together since 1988 and are raising their sons John, 15, and Sam, 12, in Decatur, Ga.
"They will tell you we are just like any other old married couple," Ellis said. "They will tell you that, and it's not true. Not yet. And we're ready for it to be."
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was among those kicking off the "Southerners for the Freedom to Marry" campaign Monday, saying he believes gay marriage supporters are on the "right side of history."
"This is about a trajectory. This is about the fact that marriage equality is on an irreversible path toward being legalized across the United States of America," said Reed, who spoke of his initial reluctance to move from civil unions to supporting gay marriage based on religious reasons.
"And some folks have to decide, just like I did, where they want to be on a historical issue," said Reed. "I was wrong, and I changed my opinion."
Georgia and the 13 other states targeted in the campaign all have either a constitutional or statutory provision defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and Republicans still hold considerable sway in those states.
Meanwhile, lawsuits have been filed across the region challenging those bans. Virginia became the first state in the South to see its voter-approved ban overturned when U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen found it unconstitutional in a ruling Feb. 13. A day earlier, a federal judge in Kentucky ruled that state must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
"We know that the South is ready," said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, which is spearheading the effort. "For too long the conversation has come from other parts of the country who have moved forward faster."
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have state laws or court decisions that allow same-sex couples to marry, according to a recent update by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Polls have shown growing public support for gay marriage, although a large majority of Republicans still oppose it.
Jerry Luquire, president of the Georgia Christian Coalition, said he doesn't believe the effort will gain momentum in the South as long as the focus is on marriage.
"There is no right way to do a wrong thing, and a marriage between a man and a man and between a woman and a woman is simply wrong," Luquire said. "What they need to do is find another word that means the same thing and doesn't offend the sensibilities of those who believe marriage is between a man and a woman."
Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, an icon of the civil rights movement, has lent his clout to the gay marriage effort, calling it a civil rights issue in a Web video released by the group.
"I've fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color, not to stand up and speak out against discrimination against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters," Lewis says in the ad.