LINCOLN, NEBRASKA — Harold Wilson and Gracy Sedlak want the same right that so many others are fighting for in the United States today, the right to marry whoever they choose. The reason they are not able to legally marry each other is because Sedlak is a transgender person in transition from male to female. Therefore, their union is legally considered a violation of Nebraska’s constitution, amended in 2000 to allow marriage only between a man and a woman.
After losing two of their own lawsuits challenging that amendment, Wilson and Sedlak have asked permission to be added as plaintiffs to a similar case being brought by the ACLU. For this particular couple, the stakes in this marriage equality fight go beyond the obvious. Wilson is serving a decades-long sentence for attempted murder and other crimes. Without marrying him, Sedlak is barred from visiting her partner because she was herself an inmate within the past three years.
Like many of the battles in the war over marriage equality, each of these cases has a history. Nebraska amended its constitution by ballot initiative to define marriage as between a man and a woman. That move prompted the ACLU and other groups to sue. The case made history in 2005 when U.S. District Judge Joseph Bataillon became the first to overturn a state marriage law. In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit overruled Bataillon, handing same-sex marriage its only significant judicial defeat prior to the Supreme Court weakening the Defense of Marriage Act last year.
Since that time, a growing consensus among courts has said denying lesbian and gay couples the freedom to marry has no legitimate basis. — ACLU Nebraska spokesman Tyler Richard
Only one federal circuit — the sixth, covering Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee — has upheld such a ban since the Supreme Court’s ruling, setting the stage for revisiting the Nebraska measure. In preparation for this lawsuit, Nebraska’s ACLU carefully vetted a group of seven couples from among the many which volunteered to participate.
According to the Lincoln Journal Star, “Six of the couples are legally married in other states. Four have children. One has been together for three decades; another nearly that long. They include a therapist, a lawyer, a CPA, a doctor, four consultants, a disabled veteran and an advocate for families with disabled children.” The group was selected to send a message that there is nothing dangerous to society about allowing same-sex couples to wed.
Wilson is in the midst of a 56 to 170 year sentence for attempted murder, kidnapping and sexual assault in Dawson County. He’s been in prison since Sedlak, born John Jirovsky, was two years old. The only way to get around the state rule keeping former inmates from visiting prisons is through marriage, a route barred to the couple as long as they are both legally considered male.
Wilson and Sedlak sought to marry under the care of the Lincoln Monthly Meeting of conservative Quakers, where Sedlak, a Wiccan, attends worship. However, the prison blocked the attempt. They were further denied a marriage license twice, and then sought relief in both state and federal courts.In 2013, both cases were denied. The federal case was barred by a settlement in another matter, and the state case — which alternatively asked for Sedlak to be legally recognized as a woman — was denied because the couple failed to pay the necessary filling fees.
After the ACLU case was filed in November, Wilson and Sedlak made a motion to be added as plaintiffs. Attempts to reach Sedlak for comment were unsuccessful.
In their motion against the couple, ACLU lawyers have argued that adding additional plaintiffs now would create an unnecessary delay in the case. According to an AP report, Wilson and Sedlak “have not demonstrated or alleged that the seven Nebraska couples already in the suit do not adequately represent the couple’s interests.”
Judge Bataillon, who originally overturned Nebraska’s constitutional amendment in 2003, will be making the final decision on the ACLU case, including the current motion to include Wilson and Sedlack No date has been publicly announced for a hearing on the motion to be added, which will be decided before the larger case moves forward.