09/26/2012 05:01 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Brian Edwards, Tom Privitere, Sue Anti-Gay Group Over Use Of Engagement Photograph

Two men whose engagement photo was used without their permission in anti-gay political attack ads by an organization that, according to its website, opposes "the furtherance of so-called 'Gay Rights,'" are now suing the organization.

"Our case is about the defilement of a beautiful moment," Christine P. Sun, the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, explained at a press conference on Wednesday.

The beautiful moment occurred a little over two years ago, when Brian Edwards and Tom Privitere were preparing for their wedding. They hired a photographer, Kristina Hill, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, to shoot engagement photos. One of their favorite was a black and white photo that showed the two men holding hands and kissing with the Manhattan skyline in the background. They posted the photo on a blog they'd started to celebrate their engagement and upcoming marriage.

Nearly two years later, a doctored version of the photograph popped up in a political mailer in Colorado, attacking the Republican former-state Sen. Jean White, who had supported recent legislation that would have legalized civil unions for gay couples in the state. The Manhattan skyline was photoshopped away and replaced with a snowy forest scene, suggesting the photograph was shot in the state. Across the photo, a red and white band proclaims "State Senator Jean White's Idea of 'Family Values?'" A similar version of the photograph was sent out to Colorado residents, attacking a Republican candidate for the Colorado House, Jeffrey Hare.

According to the back of the mailers, the sender was the "Public Advocate of the United States," an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center deemed a hate group last year. The Public Advocate, which is not an organization of the U.S. government, has a history of anti-gay rhetoric and demonstrations. This history includes a fundraising letter that once asked readers to “imagine a world where the police allow homosexual adults to rape young boys in the streets"; the claim that the Transportation Safety Administration's safety procedures at airports are part of a "homosexual agenda"; and the performance of a "Man-Donkey Mock Wedding Ceremony."

Edwards and Privitere were shocked and furious to discover earlier this summer that their engagement photo had been "hijacked by a hate group," as Edwards put it. For Edwards, the experience recalled memories of his childhood in North Carolina, where he was frequently bullied in school. "We felt it was our moral obligation to stand up to this injustice," he said, explaining why he, his husband, and Hill decided to file the suit.

Part of the pain of seeing the photograph used in these mailers, Privitere explained, was the joy the couple had initially felt when they looked at the picture and saw it as evidence of how they had each overcome the anti-gay messages they heard growing up. "When you grow up in a society, and you tend to fear what you are because that's what they tell you, you're never sure how your life is going to turn out," Privitere told The Huffington Post. "So when you meet the person that you love and you decide to spend your lives together, and you document that in photography, to have that taken away from you overnight is vile."

The lawsuit alleges that Public Advocate's use of the photo in these mailers is illegal, because it violates the photographer's copyright claim, and because it misappropriates the couples' image. In July, the Southern Poverty Law Center sent a letter to Public Advocate and the founder and leader of the group, Eugene A. Delgaudio, demanding confirmation that the group would no longer use the photograph. SPLC never received a response. It is unclear why Public Advocate selected this picture for use in its mailer, but the lawsuit alleges it is because the group was trying to save money by not paying for a stock photograph.

Delgaudio, did not respond to request for comment about the lawsuit. In addition to his work at Public Advocate, Delgaudio is a county supervisor in Virginia. According to a Washington Post story also published on Wednesday, Delgaudio was accused of improperly using his staff to solicit campaign contributions.

Sun, the deputy legal director at SPLC, said, "We hope that [this lawsuit] sends the strong message that hate groups may only promote their ideology within the perimeters of the law."

CORRECTION: This article originally referred to Bryan Edwards. His name is spelled Brian Edwards.