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Crime & Courts

Same-sex couple ready for next challenge

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Published:   |   Updated: June 29, 2013 at 09:24 AM

TAMPA - Phyllis Hunt and Vilia Corvison rejoiced when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a large part of the Defense of Marriage Act on Wednesday.

"I was so overwhelmed, I started crying," Corvison said.

"I was very excited to hear the ruling," added Hunt. "I just landed on a plane. I wanted to disrupt the plane by shouting, 'We won! We won!' "

But for the two Tampa women, the fight for recognition of their marriage - nearly a decade old and marked by their own battle in federal court - is far from over.

The couple held a commitment ceremony in Washington in 1995 and were married in Toronto in 2004.

About a month after the wedding, they filed a lawsuit in federal court in Tampa seeking to overturn the section of the Defense of Marriage Act that says one state doesn't have to recognize weddings performed in another.

U.S. District Judge James Moody ruled against them. Under pressure from gay rights lawyers fearful of setting a harmful precedent, their attorney, Ellis Rubin, did not appeal.

Rubin, the Miami-based crusader who took on cases that garnered him national notoriety, said at the time, "People will continue the fight. I think it will be successful eventually. Perhaps not in my lifetime."

Less than two years later, Rubin died.

The Defense of Marriage Act section challenged by Rubin's lawsuits still stands. The Supreme Court ruling this week addressed another section that barred federal recognition of legal marriages.

Hunt and Corvison say they hope the rest of the change will come when they're still alive - that Florida and other states prohibiting same-sex marriage will finally allow it.

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The lawyer who persuaded Rubin to forgo an appeal was Matt Coles, then the director of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Coles, now the ACLU's deputy national legal director in New York, said that the surviving portions of the Defense of Marriage Act don't specifically address same-sex couples. So, for example, if one state allows young teenagers to wed, other states don't have to recognize those marriages now, either.

The Constitution's "full faith and credit clause" requires states to respect the "public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state." Coles said people assume that clause or the equal protection clause requires states to recognize weddings performed elsewhere, but that's never been tested in court.

So if the Constitution does require wedding recognition, then Section 2 of the Defense of Marriage Act "probably doesn't mean much," Coles said, except that Congress is supposed to enforce the full faith and credit clause.

Coles said the best strategy would be to find a test case that doesn't necessarily involve a couple who have "hopped the border" to wed somewhere outside their state. The best test case might involve, for example, a couple legally wed in New York who get into a car crash while traveling through Ohio or another state that doesn't recognize their marriage, and then are challenged in the hospital. Or it could be a lawsuit by a couple legally wed in their home state and then one is transferred by an employer to another state.

Hunt, 55, said she's not sure if she will file another lawsuit and use the Supreme Court ruling to build on.

"I don't know what my steps are going to be, but I will support this work until this work is done," said Hunt, who is pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa. "I will support the work of justice and equality, whether it's a gay issue, a homeless issue, a feeding program issue, a border issue. There's lot of injustices in our culture and our society."

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The couple have been active in their quest for legal recognition of same-sex marriages for years. Even before the lawsuit, they traveled with other couples each year to the Hillsborough County Clerk's Office on Valentine's Day and ask for a marriage license. When refused, they asked the clerk to read aloud the state law prohibiting legal recognition of their union.

Then, Hunt said, they went outside and she performed civil commitment ceremonies for all the couples there.

After their 2004 loss in federal court, Hunt said she became involved in efforts to overturn Florida's ban on adoptions by gay parents.

"In 2008, my godchildren were born, triplets. That just gave me three little names to fight for," Hunt said, "three little heartbeats that deserved their two moms as legal parents."

A state appeals court threw out the adoption ban in September 2010, and the adoption took place a few months later, Hunt said.

Corvison, 56, said she's generally a more private person than Hunt but has been glad to stand by her side for this fight.

"I used to be in the closet until I met Phyllis," Corvison said, "and she just kind of threw me out there as the good pastor's spouse."

Corvison said she was attracted by Hunt's strength when they met in a church choir in Washington in 1992.

"I think of her as a Renaissance woman," Corvison said. "When I met her she had redone something. She did drywall to her house, and I was so excited that I could meet someone who was strong enough in her own constitution to be able to say, 'I can do anything.' That's the kind of partner I would want to have."

"Initially it was not, it wasn't like love at first sight," Hunt said. "It was kindness and laughter and singing in the same section and strengthening our parts and it evolved from that."

After all these years together, Hunt said, they are just like any other couple.

"There's nothing extraordinary about our relationship that looks any different than any married couple, except we're really committed to working through whatever challenges we face to stay together," she said.

"When we got together, we had this amazing conversation about being together for a long time and what we decided was love was not enough, that if we were going to see through the challenges of long-term relationships, then we needed to stay in check with our respect for each other, bring integrity to the relationship, value each other's individuality, make sure laughter stays a key component of our journey together and have an ongoing spiritual practice that grounds our love."

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Metropolitan Community Church was founded in 1968 as a ministry for people who are gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual. They make up about 90 percent of the congregation today.

As a pastor in Florida, Hunt has the legal authority to wed people but cannot perform legally sanctioned weddings for members of her own congregation.

So Hunt decided a few years ago not to perform legal weddings for heterosexuals, either.

"I'll do the religious wedding, but they have to get a justice of the peace or a notary to sign off on their marriage license," she said. "For me it was a justice issue. I can marry the people who don't come to my church, but I can't marry the people who do. ... I can't serve as an agent of the state for people who are discriminated against because of who they love."

Hunt said she has officiated at about five or six heterosexual marriages and has performed religious weddings for about 25 same-sex couples during her 12 years as pastor.

Although the marriage equality issue has been cast as a fight against Christian biblical values, Hunt said it's important to understand that not all Christians feel the same.

"A religious institution defined this battle and they speak it as if they speak for all Christians," she said. "And this is both a civil and a faith-based issue, but they should not be mixed. And as long as a sacred text is going to be used as a foundational document to define this issue, then I'm in this fight because that's also my document. That's also my sacred text. And conservative Christianity does not speak for all Christians."

As happy as they are that the Supreme Court has recognized the legitimacy of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages, Hunt and Corvison say there is more work to be done.

The ruling is "not going to change anything now," Hunt said. "We've got some precedence to stand on that we didn't have before, but the marriage statute in Florida says one man, one woman, and lays out the definition of what spouse means. ... It may not happen in my lifetime, but it's going to happen. I think it will happen in my lifetime."

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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