ACLU bankrolling gay nuptials in ‘My Big Gay Illegal Wedding’ contest

Liz Goodwin
Yahoo News
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Brian Jensen and Jeromy Manke, a same-sex engaged couple in Nevada, are in the running to win a free trip to New York City, $5,000, and help from a wedding planner to fund their spring nuptials in California.

Who would bankroll their nuptials? An organization that spends far more time defending civil liberties in court than at wedding receptions.

The American Civil Liberties Union—worried that the public thinks the same-sex marriage battle is “over” after the Supreme Court’s twin decisions expanding gay rights last summer—is paying five same-sex couples who live in states that still outlaw the practice to get married.

Jensen and Manke are one of dozens of gay couples competing in the usually staid ACLU’s tongue-in-cheek online contest called “My Big Gay (Il)legal Wedding.” Same-sex couples that live in the 33 states that ban gay marriage submit their wedding ideas, photos, and love stories, competing against each other for votes to win cash for their weddings. Five of them will be declared the winners after the contest closes Feb. 16, just after Valentine’s Day.

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“I’ve got the tickets to the hottest, chicest most fabulous thing this season: Gay weddings!” “Project Runway” star Tim Gunn says in a promotional video for the contest. Gunn, who the ACLU tapped as a spokesman for the contest, explains that many states still don’t recognize same-sex unions. "Ugh…these states need a makeover!,” he exclaims.

The lighthearted project is intended to highlight a serious issue: that 33 states still explicitly ban same-sex marriage, even though the federal government now recognizes the unions.

The ACLU is currently litigating same-sex marriage cases in Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Oregon and Utah, attempting to get the courts to agree with them that there is a fundamental right to marriage that states should not be allowed to infringe upon.

“I think a whole lot of people in the country have thought, ‘Oh well, the Supreme Court decided the gay marriage issue and it’s over,’” said James Esseks, the director of the ACLU’s LGBT Project. “But they haven’t.”

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex unions. (A seventeenth state, Illinois, will begin to do so this June.) The Supreme Court ruled last June that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages issued by these states, but declined to interfere in individual states’ power to ban the practice. That means there is still legal confusion about the status of a gay couple that gets married in New York and then moves to Pennsylvania, for example. They could still file their federal taxes jointly, but would not be able to do the same with their state taxes. Health insurance benefits and access to family courts would also be in question.

The Supreme Court decision “made a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” Esseks said. “But there are still hundreds of thousands of same sex couples living in many states in the country who can’t get married at home or if they are married in another state, those marriages are not respected at home.”

Richard Socarides, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton on gay rights, said he thinks the campaign is a “clever” and necessary piece of public education during a time of confusion about the state of the gay marriage fight.

“A lot of people think because gay marriage has been in the news so much, it’s a done deal,” Socarides said. “But there are still a lot of places where Americans can’t get married.”

Jensen, 29, and Manke, 26, entered the contest last month in the hopes of getting $5,000 for the spring wedding they’ve planned near Lake Tahoe, Calif. Jensen, a hair stylist, and Manke, a human resources consultant, both live in Reno, Nev., where their marriage will not be recognized when they drive back over the border when the honeymoon is over.

“We really just wanted to not only take advantage of the opportunity to get married and have a cool contest to participate in, but also call attention to the fact that this is an issue,” Manke said.

The two have been engaged since June of 2012.

“It’s super fairy-tale cheesy I guess, but Brian proposed to me in Spain while we were staying in a castle,” Manke said. The couple wants their wedding day to be similarly romantic: They are asking their guests to wear white, black and gray so that the color of the trees stands out in their wedding photos. They also plan to cross over from Reno into California in a covered, horse-drawn wagon, a nod to the pioneers who sought a better life by heading west more than a century ago.

But Manke and Jensen aren’t going anywhere. “I was born and raised here,” Manke said. “Our lives are here. So why should we have to move?”