Chattanooga couple among winners of ACLU national gay-wedding contest

photo Megan Smith, left, proposes to Lindsey Wagoner, who later changed her last name to Smith, in Chattanooga.

NEW YORK - The American Civil Liberties Union's primary work is litigation, but this month it's moonlighting as a wedding planner as part of its role in the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.

The beneficiaries are five gay and lesbian couples from across the U.S. who, out of a field of some 400 entries, were announced Wednesday as winners of the ACLU's My Big Gay (Il)Legal Wedding contest.

Each couple lives in a state where same-sex marriage is outlawed. They will get logistical and financial help - up to $5,000 - from the ACLU to get married the week of April 28 in one of the 17 states, plus Washington D.C., which do allow gay marriage.

The contest, launched in December, has coincided with a surge of court victories for supporters of same-sex marriage in several states that currently ban it. Federal judges have struck down bans in Michigan, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia, and ordered Kentucky and Tennessee to recognize out-of-state gay marriages, though stays have been issued pending appeals.

James Esseks, director of the ACLU's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project, said the wedding contest highlights the type of problems faced by gay couples in the nearly 30 states where marriage-equality lawsuits have been filed.

"We live in this crazy time, with a patchwork of protections, where you can go across the border and get married," he said. "The problem is that when you turn around and go back, you're not going to be considered married by your home states. That's not the way it should work in America."

The winners were selected by contest organizers from among the 25 couples who received the most votes in online balloting. The ACLU said nearly 200,000 votes were cast. The winners:

• Jeromy Manke and Brian Jensen of Reno, Nev. Jensen, a hair stylist, and Manke, a human resources consultant, have been engaged since June 2012 and plan a California wedding at nearby Lake Tahoe.

• Tamara Sheffield and Maryja Mee of Salisbury, N.C. They've been a couple since meeting in college 24 years ago, and have become activists in the quest to legalize same-sex marriage in North Carolina.

• Humberto Niebla and Rafael Vasquez of Paradise Valley, Ariz. The couple, who have been dating for six years, expressed hope of having a 1920s-themed beachfront wedding in California.

• Jeff Robertson and Jeremiah Pyant of Houston. Pyant, a flight attendant, and Robertson, an ad executive, met four years ago aboard a plane that Pyant was working on. They got engaged in December and hope to marry aboard a hot air balloon taking off from Texas, where same-sex marriage is banned, and flying over the border into New Mexico, where it's legal.

• Megan and Lindsey Smith of Chattanooga, Tenn. Megan, a real estate agent and insurance broker, and Lindsey, a nurse, met three years ago, and since then have founded an advocacy group called Tennessee Marriage Equality. Lindsey also recently changed her last name as a show of commitment; she had entered the contest as Lindsey Wagoner.

The couple had a wedding celebration in Chattanooga on Sunday, even though Tennessee doesn't recognize gay marriages, and they plan to be legally wed in a few weeks in Washington, D.C., outside the U.S. Supreme Court building.

"It was beautiful," Megan said of Sunday's event. "But according to Tennessee, we're still legal strangers to each other."

Dozens of the couple's close friends and family members were on hand for the celebration, but there was a notable absence - Megan's father, who is a minister. "He was worried about what his church would do," she said.

For all the couples, the fast pace of gay-marriage litigation has added some extra excitement to the wedding planning.

"As soon as we entered the contest, the court decisions started coming out," said Jeff Robertson. "We're living a civil rights movement right before our eyes."