Who Would Tell Her No?
Families seek state recognition in face of health challenges
Pearl Berlin strode gingerly across the stage and took up her position behind the podium with the large white banner for the ACLU on the front.
A diminutive woman, the 89-year-old smiled childlike at the microphone attached to the end of a long narrow stem that was some eight to 10 inches too high to be of much help in projecting her frail voice.
As she has been for the last 48 years, Lennie Gerber was there immediately to adjust the mic so that Berlin could tell those assembled at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum just how the two women have been able to maintain their love for each other since 1966.
“There’s no trick to it,” Berlin said.
“It’s nothing simple or special, but genuine love that all married couples experience is based on mutual respect and caring. Those two words … are the ones that make a difference.”
Berlin and Gerber were married last year in the state of Maine. Before leaving on that trip, the two women were united in a Jewish wedding at Beth David Synagogue in Greensboro.
But because a majority of the good people of the state of North Carolina voted in 2012 to amend the state’s constitution specifically to deny gay and lesbian people the freedom to marry, this successful, loving couple is rendered second class.
The American Civil Liberties Union has already filed one legal challenge to Amendment One, the name of the measure voters passed in 2012 that etched in stone a narrow definition of a broad institution.
But on April 9, the ACLU filed a second challenge to Amendment One, specifically seeking an expedited ruling to force the state of North Carolina to recognize four same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Berlin and Gerber were one of the couples participating as plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed in Greensboro on the same day that the ACLU held a press conference at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
The legal challenge, and an accompanying motion for preliminary injunction, outline in detail how each of the four couples need immediate recognition of their marriages in order to meet health-related issues.
For Berlin and Gerber it’s the fear of the inevitable.
“We understand that this is the closing chapter of our lives,” Gerber said. “I don’t want this closing chapter to end with me holding a death certificate that says Pearl is single, with me having a funeral home or a cemetery saying ‘no, we can’t treat you as her spouse.’” The couple live in High Point, where Berlin has been hospitalized three times in the past two years.
“High Point Hospital has been wonderful, our papers are on file and they treat us as a couple,” Gerber said. “What happens if something happens in Greensboro? What happens if we call 911 there? Will we not be treated as a couple? Could something terrible happen and I’m not allowed to be there? That’s why we need to be married and have our marriage recognized in North Carolina.”
Greensboro residents Lyn Mc- Coy and Jane Blackburn have been together for 22 years. The couple was married in the District of Columbia in 2011 after vowing at a family reunion not to be slighted any longer on the family tree.
But a year later, Blackburn discovered she had breast cancer. After battling it back once, the disease has spread to her bones.
“Lyn has been right there beside me the whole time,” Blackburn said. “They tell us it’s not curable, so we’re just doing everything we can to keep it at bay.”
The couple worries about the dignity of having their marriage recognized, and the benefits each would be entitled to given the death of a spouse, but a simpler human emotion underpins the legalese.
“I just want to get married while Jane is still alive,” McCoy said. “We are fighting for her life, but you never know. It’s truly important to us.”
Since the US Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2012, eight state bans on same-sex marriage have been ruled unconstitutional. Currently, 17 states recognize the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.
Seven of those recognitions have come in the last year.
In light of these trends, and what ACLU legal experts call “an emerging grassroots consensus,” the fate of North Carolina’s ill-conceived Amendment One seems clear.
“We live in a very different state than we lived in two years ago when Amendment One passed,” said Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “People are consistently reassessing on this issue and young people overwhelmingly support the freedom to marry.”
Elizabeth Gill, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s LGBT Project, noted that the trend evidenced a “truly historic moment” in the civil rights movement for lesbian and gay couples. Noting that court rulings have been uniform in expanding the freedom to marry since the Supreme Court ruling in 2012, Gill pointed out that courts in several
Republican states are among that group.
“These are not just courts in blue states, these courts are in places like Oklahoma and Tennessee, Kentucky and Texas and Virginia,” Gill said. “They have all recently found that the marriage bans in those states violate the federal constitution. We are asking the court here to do the same.”
Brook agreed, noting that a recent ruling expanding the freedom to marry that took place in Michigan was handed down by a Reagan appointee.
Not everyone is in lock step with the majority consensus forming around an expanded notion of the freedom to marry. Citing the majority of 61 percent of North Carolina voters who said “yes” to Amendment One in 2012, the executive director of the Raleighbased Christian Action League compared a potential court ruling to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage to fascism.
“When or if a court of unelected justices were to rule in their favor, as eight courts have unfortunately done in similar cases in recent months, it is only further proof we have moved away from the fundamental principle of a government of the people, by the people and for the people, but have become a government of the courts, by the courts and for the courts,” said Rev. Mark Creech. “This would not be our culture’s listening to its better angels. Instead, it is the newest expression of fascism in the supposed land of the free.”
Such hyperbole seems childish in the face of the story told by for mer Army Maj. Esmeralda Mejia, a decorated veteran of Operation Desert Storm. Mejia received the Bronze Star, among other awards for her service, but is now a disabled veteran, having since battled two bouts of cancer, a liver transplant, and numerous postsurgical complications.
Mejia currently lives in Hickory with her spouse, whom she married in Maryland last year. The couple has an adopted son, but only the spouse is legally the boy’s parent under current North Carolina law. Mejia is seeking what is called second parent adoption, in order to have her relationship with her son recognized.
After describing her battle with cancer and her love for her child, Mejia took a moment to compose herself before continuing.
“Through it all … my wife, my rock has always been there,” Mejia said. “I knew that no matter what, she would help me through it all, and she has been. All I’m asking is for the state of North Carolina to recognize my benefits just like they have been recognized as a veteran. I want the same thing. I love this state. The fact that I’m not recognized in this state hurts me and it hurts my family.”
Attorneys Broook and Gill explained that their legal challenge included an aggressive schedule and that they hoped the court would grant an expedited hearing.
“The stories that we lay out are unbelievably persuasive and compelling about why this is relief that they need, not months down the road, but really in a matter of days,” Brook said. “They need to be able to have marital recognition here in North Carolina so they can protect their families.” !