Tampa couple's divorce could challenge same-sex marriage ban

Published March 25, 2014

TAMPA — A few months ago, Mariama Changamire Shaw called the courthouse in the small town of Sunderland, Mass., where she married her wife four years ago. Could she file for divorce in Massachusetts even though she and her wife now lived in Florida, she asked.

The answer exposed a reality that few gay couples consider when they wed in one of the 17 states that allow same-sex unions: a move to a new state can make it almost impossible to legally end the marriage.

To divorce in Massachusetts, Changamire Shaw would have to live there for a year, which was unfeasible since they both live in Florida. So on Jan. 15, Changamire Shaw filed for divorce in Hillsborough County, even though in 2008 Florida outlawed same-sex unions.

On Monday, her attorneys notified Attorney General Pam Bondi that the couple has signed a marital settlement agreement and — in what may be the first case of its kind in Florida — plans to challenge Florida's same-sex marriage ban. (A lawsuit filed Jan. 21 by six couples in South Florida who want to wed also seeks to overturn the ban.)

On Thursday, Changamire Shaw, 47, and her spouse, Keiba Lynn Shaw, 45, were scheduled to attend an uncontested divorce hearing in front of Circuit Judge Laurel M. Lee. On Monday, one of Changamire Shaw's attorneys, Brett Rahall, received an email from the judge changing the Thursday hearing to a status conference instead.

Rahall and co-counsel Ellen Ware anticipate the judge will reject the divorce request. So they submitted their argument in advance so they can bring it up should they need to appeal. They argue that the divorce does not violate the marriage ban since it would eradicate the marriage. They also argue the marriage ban violates the equal protection clause of the Florida and U.S. Constitutions.

"I am motivated by injustice and wanting to help people understand there are real consequences to this," said Changamire Shaw, who is an adjunct professor of communication at the University of Tampa. "Non-recognition is a communication of 'you are not worthy, you are not right, you are not human enough to be recognized.' "

Keiba Lynn Shaw, a physical therapist, said she believes the state law should change. "All rights that are afforded people who are heterosexual should be afforded to same-sex couples, as well," she said. But she would prefer to keep her privacy.

The couple wed on Feb. 5, 2010, at the Sunderland courthouse in western Massachusetts. They moved to Tampa in 2011. The couple separated last October. The agreement, which was reached following a collaborative divorce proceeding, prevents the couple from disclosing details about their relationship.

With limited financial resources, Changamire Shaw, who is pursuing a doctorate degree in communication, reached out to Lambda Legal, a gay rights legal organization. It referred her to Rahall, who is also gay and married. After filing the case, the attorneys decided to proceed with a collaborative divorce, a process that can take a fraction of the time of more adversarial divorces.

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"A petition for divorce typically involves requests and accusations," said Keiba Lynn Shaw's attorney, Adam B. Cordover. "What we try to do is not file anything until the parties have reached a full resolution."

The Shaws signed an agreement after two five-hour meetings. The agreement said they would not communicate with each other again, that Keiba Lynn Shaw would give a lump sum payment to Mariama M. Changamire Shaw and that each was responsible for her own attorneys fees. Changamire Shaw would return to using her maiden name.

The settlement agreement mentions a boy born in Haiti in 2009 — before the couple married — and adopted by Keiba Lynn Shaw. The boy will remain with her. Haiti does not allow gay adoption. Changamire Shaw cannot talk about it. But when she is asked about the child, tears fill her eyes.

The Shaw divorce is apparently not the first same-sex divorce to be filed in Florida.

Elizabeth Schwartz, an attorney representing same-sex couples seeking to wed in South Florida, said judges have granted several same-sex divorces "without any publicity." And one other South Florida couple has appealed a divorce denial to the 3rd District Court of Appeal. That case does not challenge the marriage ban, Schwartz said.

The Shaw case would not be the first divorce to challenge marriage bans in the United States. The Wyoming Supreme Court did not strike down its marriage ban but made it legal for all couples to divorce. And in Texas, attorneys for several divorcing couples are waiting to hear if the Texas Supreme Court will strike down the same-sex marriage ban.

"Gay people are as capable of good and weakness as any other people," said Evan Wolfson, an attorney and gay rights advocate who founded the organization, Freedom to Marry. "And that's why they need the freedom to marry and they also need the rules and protections that come with divorce."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at (727)893-8640