Supreme Court rejects plea to hear Ga. gay-rights case Woman lost job offer due to lesbian 'marriage'

January 13, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court spurned a plea yesterday for constitutional protection for the private lives of homosexual partners, including their choice to commit themselves to each other in a ceremony similar to a wedding.

Without comment, the court rejected a case from Georgia that had been closely watched for any sign that the justices might make constitutional law more tolerant of gay and lesbian couples' lifestyles.

There was no indication why the justices refused to hear the case, the most significant gay rights dispute to reach the court in its current term.

The dispute involves an Atlanta woman who had been offered a job in the state law department in 1991, only to see the offer withdrawn after officials learned that she planned a wedding-like religious ritual with her lesbian companion.

The woman, Robin Joy Shahar, stressed in her appeal that she was not challenging Georgia's state law banning same-sex marriage.

She said she and her partner did not claim a right to be married in a legal sense and have not tried to promote same-sex marriages.

Rather, Shahar said, she sought only protection against being punished by the government, through the denial of a public job that otherwise would have been hers, solely because of her private relationship with her partner. That denial, Shahar contended, violated her right to privacy and to engage in expressions of her religious beliefs.

No state now recognizes same-sex marriage. But same-sex unions are likely to become a state constitutional right in Hawaii this year through action of the Hawaii Supreme Court. The Hawaii developments have prompted 25 states and Congress to quickly pass laws against homosexual marriage.

Georgia's state attorney general justified his withdrawal of the job offer to Shahar by arguing that the public would be confused, if she were hired, about the state's enforcement of Georgia's laws against homosexuality, including laws that make sodomy a crime and forbid same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court has rejected a constitutional challenge to Georgia's anti-sodomy law as applied to homosexual activity.

"Inaction on my part," Michael J. Bowers, the state attorney general, wrote to Shahar, "would constitute tacit approval of this purported marriage and jeopardize the proper functioning of this office."

That was a justified worry, a federal appeals court based in Atlanta ruled in an 8-4 decision in May. Any private rights the lesbian lawyer might claim to have in her personal relationship, that court ruled, had been outweighed by Georgia's fear of the message her hiring would send to citizens.

Shahar, 34, who is now an attorney for the city of Atlanta, went ahead with a wedding-like ritual with her partner, Francine M. Greenfield. Both partners took the last name Shahar; Robin Shahar formerly was named Robin Brown.

Yesterday, Shahar said she was "very disappointed" by the Supreme Court's action. "There is often a lag between the public's perception and intolerance of fairness and the court's willingness to rectify unfairness," she said.

The Georgia attorney general's office said in a statement that it was "very pleased" by the court's action, which it said "brings the case to an end."

In another case, the justices showed little sympathy yesterday for a plea by the state of New York to classify all of Ellis Island, the historic entry point for some 17 million immigrants to the United States, as lying within New York.

A fact-finding official appointed by the court has recommended that New York and New Jersey split the island in New York harbor, with New York allowed some control over 5.1 acres of the 27.5-acre island, and New Jersey over the rest. Once sovereignty is determined, one or both states could tax activities on the island and have some influence over future tourism development.

The island is now part of a national monument, and the U.S. government has title to it. But New York and New Jersey have been locked in battle for years over the state boundary near the island -- a line that will determine whether all or part of it will lie in New York and whether any part is in New Jersey.

The island originally comprised only about three acres but has been built up through landfills. The dispute before the court focuses solely on control over the landfill area.

New Jersey has the federal government's support for its claim. Yesterday, the justices' most aggressive questioning was aimed an assistant New York attorney general, Daniel Smirlock, who argued that "all of Ellis Island is in New York."

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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