(NEW YORK) — Brian Edwards and Tom Privitere, a New Jersey couple whose photo of them kissing at their engagement party was altered and turned up in an anti-gay unions mailer 2,000 miles away, have filed a lawsuit against a group called Public Advocate of the United States.
They are seeking a court order alleging that the non-profit organization violated the law by the unauthorized use of the photo. They have also asked for damages, costs and attorney fees, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court in Colorado.
The couple received legal assistance from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which lists Public Advocate as a hate group.
“This case is about the defilement of a beautiful moment by a group known for demonizing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] community,” said Christine P. Sun, SPLC deputy legal director. “This was just a cheap way for Public Advocate to avoid having to pay for a stock photo to use in their hateful anti-gay attack ad. It was nothing short of theft.”
The lawsuit was also filed on behalf of photographer Kristina Hill of Kristina Hill Photography, who owned the copyrighted photo.
Their photo had been posted on Edwards’ personal blog and was originally set against the backdrop of the New York City skyline.
But the doctored photo showed the gay couple standing in a snowy Colorado setting and was used in a political campaign to attack a Republican who supported civil union legislation.
The tagline for the ad, which was sponsored by Public Advocate of the United States, was: “State Sen. Jean White’s Idea of ‘Family Values?'” White later lost the primary.
“I cringe every time I look at what once was one of our favorite photos,” said Edwards, 32, in a statement from SPLC. “All I see now is the defiled image used to attack our family and our community. All we want is justice for the pain that Public Advocate has caused us. “
“We are heartbroken that our images may have been seen by gay and lesbian youth in Colorado and were left feeling ashamed of their sexual orientation because of it,” Privitere, 37, said in the SPLC statement. “We hope that this group is held accountable for its reprehensible and hateful anti-gay attacks.”
Privitere works in entertainment ticketing and lives with Edwards, a college administrator, in Montclair, N.J. The couple has been together for 12 years.
The SPLC sent a letter to Public Advocate and its president, Eugene Delgaudio, in July warning that it was investigating the case. The letter demanded confirmation that the group cease using the photo. Neither Delgaudio nor Public Advocate responded to the letter, according to SPLC.
Public Advocate, based in Falls Church, Va., never had permission to use the photo, according to Hill, who runs her own wedding photography business.
The couple learned the photo had been taken without authorization from a friend who saw it in a mailer from Sen. White and called them in June.
SPLC’s criteria for listing hate groups is based on those who “demonize” a class of people with “misinformation and lies,” according to Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC Intelligence Project. Such groups include the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Semitic organizations, neo-Nazis and black supremacy groups.
“There are only a handful of anti-gay groups,” said Beirich. “We don’t list those who are against gay marriage or the Biblical prescription against gay marriage — only the groups that are engaged in demonizing propaganda and lies about the gay community and basically lying about them to make them pariahs.”
Previous campaigns by Public Advocate include:
A fundraising letter asking recipients to, “imagine a world where police allow homosexual adults to rape young boys on the streets?”
Comparing same-sex marriage to bestiality.
Suggesting having gays as Boy Scout leaders is, “the same as being an accessory to the rape of hundreds of boys.”
Characterizing campaigns to stop anti-LGBT bullying as “requir[ing] schools to teach appalling homosexual acts … force private and even religious schools to teach a pro-homosexual agenda.”
Public Advocate president Eugene Delgaudio, who is head of the board of supervisors for Loudon County in Virginia, told ABC News in July that the ad campaigns are only “colorful language and hyperbole.” He didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday on the suit.
Edwards and Privitere hope the incident is a teachable moment.
“We want to use this as an opportunity to educate people and show them that a gay couple can and do have loving relationships,” said Edwards.
“This sort of thing has a trickle-down effect,” said Privitere. “I think of all the closeted gay high school students who got mail that day and felt disheartened that they would never have a family and the parents on the fence about whether to accept their gay child for who they are. That hurts.
“These people are spreading lies, and I want them [recipients of the mailers] to know they have our support,” he added.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Kelly Bazzle, CNN
Elizabeth Roberts, CNN
Gregory Krieg, CNN
Eric Levenson and Dakin Andone, CNN