December 7, 2012 | by Michael K. Lavers
Advocacy groups welcome Supreme Court decision to hear marriage cases
Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

State groups welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to consider the constitutionality of DOMA, Proposition 8. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Same-sex couples and others who challenged the Defense of Marriage Act on Friday welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to consider the constitutionality of DOMA and California’s Proposition 8.

“I’ve been waiting 64 years for this happen,” Sandisfield, Mass., resident Herb Burtis, who married his partner of nearly 60 years in 2004 once Massachusetts’ same-sex marriage law took effect, said.

The Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in 2009 filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Burtis, whose husband died from Parkinson’s disease in 2008, two other gay widows and eight same-sex couples who challenged the federal government’s denial of marital and survivor benefits to them under DOMA. The group in 2010 brought a second suit on behalf of five same-sex couples and a gay widow who legally married in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont.

The court has yet to announce whether it will hear these and two other DOMA-related cases.

President Obama announced in Feb. 2011 his administration would no longer defend the Clinton-era law in federal court.

“After his death, I found that I would be denied any federal benefits that any other married couple would receive, and that’s when I became involved in the Gill case with GLAD,” said Burtis. “I’m very happy the court is going to hear at least one case that has to do with the constitutionality of DOMA.”

Joanne Pedersen, who worked for the U.S. Navy for 30 years, married Ann Meitzen in Connecticut in 2008 after the state’s same-sex marriage law took effect. She said after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the cases filed on behalf of New York widow Edith Windsor, who paid $363,000 in federal estate taxes in 2009 after her wife’s death, and same-sex couples who challenged Prop 8’s constitutionality that her inability to place Meitzen on her health insurance policy “really hurts us financially.”

“Joanne and I are a regular couple,” Meitzen added. “We mow our law. We pay our bills. We’ve paid our taxes our whole life and the fed government is treating us like our marriage doesn’t exist. We’re very happy that the Supreme Court has decided to hear a case that has to do with the constitutionality of marriages.”

State advocates welcome Supreme Court’s review of marriage cases

The U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear the Windsor and Prop 8 cases a day after same-sex couples in Washington and Maryland began receiving same-sex marriage licenses. Gays and lesbians can begin to legally marry in the two states on Sunday and on Jan. 1 respectively.

The same-sex marriage law that Maine voters approved last month takes effect on Dec. 29.

“I hope the Supreme Court will strike down DOMA and allow all married same-sex couples in Maryland to be treated equally under federal law,” Equality Maryland Executive Director Carrie Evans told the Washington Blade.

Kara Suffredini, executive director of MassEquality, also welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the two cases.

“Marriages of same-sex couples in Massachusetts are still not recognized by the federal government because of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act,” she said. “In addition to being immoral, this inequality means that married same-sex couples do not have access to many of the safety nets afforded other married couples: social security survivor benefits; Medicaid long-term care benefits; spousal veteran benefits; or rights of inheritance. The continued enforcement of DOMA has created an indefensible two-tiered system of treatment for married couples based solely on the gender of the spouses.”

Nathan M. Schaefer, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, agreed.

Even though same-sex couples have been able to legally marry in New York since July 2011, Schaefer stressed “our commitments are not honored and our families are not protected by the federal government” because of DOMA.

“We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will grant all married couples, in New York and other states, the recognition they deserve by upholding the multiple lower court rulings that have already declared sections of DOMA unconstitutional,” he said. “We view these deliberations as a critical step toward ending discrimination and advancing equality for all Americans.”

Eight states and D.C. currently have laws that allow same-sex couples to legally marry. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear the two cases comes as lawmakers in Illinois, New Jersey and Rhode Island are poised to debate the issue.

“While the cases progress in the Supreme Court, we must not lose sight of the work that remains at the state level,” Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov said. “Our opponents are likely to make every effort during this period to try to stymie progress in Illinois, saying we should wait to hear from the court. Given the success of marriage equality initiatives in the General Election and growing support for it throughout the country including Illinois, we need to continue to press for action in our state.”

As for the U.S. Supreme Court itself; Mary Bonauto, director of GLAD’s Civil Rights Project, remains confident the justices will ultimately decide these issues outlined in the two cases the justices agreed to consider.

“We have certainly seen since we’ve had Massachusetts with marriage in ‘04 and in the other states that these federal protections affect nearly every area of live and death and are a very important part of people’s security and stability so we are very happy that this issue will be addressed by the court in the Windsor case,” she said. “On DOMA I think it’s extremely important to remember that we have a case that really can appeal to all members of the court, in addition to the fact this is discrimination against people who are already married by the state. There’s a federalism component to the case because it is states that decide who can marry and not the Congress and not the federal government in states like Connecticut and Massachusetts have agreed that committed same-sex couples can marry. The real question is what interest does the federal government have in overturning the state decision for purposes of all federal laws.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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