Last edited: February 14, 2005


Supreme Court denies appeal in gay-rights case

A Philadelphia-born lawyer lost a job after she announced marriage plans with another woman.

Philadelphia Inquirer
January 13, 1998
PO Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101
(Fax 215-854-4483)

By Aaron Epstein
Inquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Former Georgia Attorney General Michael J. Bowers has been scorned by the gay-rights movement ever since he won a 1986 landmark Supreme Court case that upheld the right of states to criminalize sodomy between consenting adults.

Yesterday, Bowers won a second high-profile gay-rights case in the nation's highest court. The justices refused to hear the appeal of a Philadelphia-born lawyer who was denied a job by Bowers after she announced plans for a marriage ceremony with another woman.

The high court action made final a lower court's ruling that Bowers' withdrawal of his offer to employ Robin Joy Shahar in the Georgia Law Department did not violate her constitutional rights of association or equal protection of the laws.

By avoiding the Shahar case, the Supreme Court passed up "an opportunity to take a further step toward recognizing the impropriety of discrimination against individuals because of their sexual orientation," said David Cole, who teaches constitutional law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

The high court appeared to be moving in that direction in 1996, Cole recalled, when, by a 6-3 vote, it struck down a sweeping Colorado constitutional amendment that would have denied legal protections to gays and lesbians.

But gay-rights lawyers emphasized that the Supreme Court's action yesterday set no national precedent. "We don't think you can read too much into where the Supreme Court might be headed in the area of gay rights," said Ruth E. Harlow of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund.

Shahar, who now handles employment discrimination cases for the City of Atlanta, said she was very disappointed. "I think in the future, society will look back on this case with embarrassment," said Shahar, who attended Cheltenham High School.

"It's embarrassing when the courts act based on prejudice rather than a sense of fairness," she said. "But there is a lag between the public's perception of fairness and the courts' willingness to rectify unfairness."

Bowers, a four-term Georgia attorney general who is now a leading candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, could not be reached for comment.

Bowers hired Shahar in 1991 after she graduated from the Emory University School of Law and spent a summer as a law clerk in his office. But he withdrew the offer a few weeks after learning that Shahar and her partner planned to make a lifelong commitment in a Jewish wedding ceremony in South Carolina. A few months later, Shahar filed suit.

Bowers contended that had Shahar been hired, her same-sex marriage would have undermined public confidence in his ability to enforce the state's law against homosexual sodomy, and other laws limiting marriage and marital benefits to heterosexuals. An Atlanta-based appeals court agreed, 8-4.

"We cannot say that he [ Bowers ] was unreasonable to think that Shahar's acts were likely to cause the public to be confused and to question the Law Department's ability to handle certain controversial matters," Circuit Judge J.L. Edmondson wrote for the appeals court.

Last year, Bowers, 55, who has been married for 33 years, opened himself up to charges of hypocrisy by admitting publicly that he had a 10-year affair with a female employee. Adultery is a misdemeanor in Georgia but is rarely enforced.

When Bowers was asked by a reporter whether his conduct differed from Shahar's, he replied: "In a moral sense, it's not."

Last August, the appeals court refused to reopen the case of Shahar v. Bowers to consider the evidence of adultery. But three dissenting judges found it "suspicious" that Bowers waited until a few days after he won the appeal to admit "that, perhaps at the very time he fired Shahar, he also was breaking Georgia's adultery and fornication laws."

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