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Maine Gay Marriage Supporters Hail Court's DOMA Decision
06/26/2013   Reported By: Keith Shortall

Supporters of same-sex marriage in Maine are cheering a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. The 5 to 4 court ruling finds that a key provision of DOMA, passed in 1996, violates the Constitution's guArantee of equal protection under the law. As Keith Shortall reports, advocates for same-sex marriage say the ruling is cause for celebration - but that the battle for equality is far from over.

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People on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue have been closely watching the Supreme Court to see how it would come down on two particular cases - one involving seeking federal benefits for same-sex married couples.

"We had hope that the court would do the right thing - and they did," says Betsy Smith of Equality Maine. Sweet says she's elated by Wednesday's ruling, which she says undoes a wrong carried out by Congress in 1996, when it passed the Defense of Marriage Act.

"Seventeen years ago, the government made a bad decision that put us as second-class citizens," she says. "And, you know, the way the world works, sometimes you have to fight."

That fight, in its legal form, was centered around a case known as Windsor v. Connecticut, in which a woman named Edie Winsdor was forced to pay more than $360,000 in federal estate taxes after her spouse, Thea Spyer, died in 2009. The couple had been together for 44 years, and were able to marry two years before Thea's death.

Windsor challenged the constitutionality of section three of DOMA, which limited the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

"The court, in its decision today, actually made a point that it was the intent of Congress when it passed this law to create a second class of citizens when it came to marriage, and that's part of the reason we won," says Portland attorney Pat Peard.

Peard, who's been active in marriage equality for years, says the court rightly found that DOMA violates the Constitution "because they found that that was impermissible to pass a law for that purpose, she says. "And that's one of the stronger parts of the decision, I think, today - is that that is not OK. You can't pass laws with that intent."

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said: "The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity."

He goes on to say that the law imposes "a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states."

For same-sex married couples in Maine - one of a dozen states to recognize gay marriage - the ruling opens the door to more than 1,100 different federal benefits, and Peard says it's possible that some married couples may apply for past benefits that they have been denied.

"People who've been married five years, three years, who may say, 'Look, this law was unconstitutional. I was entitled to Social Security benefits and I didn't get them,'" Peard says. "So I 'm not sure that those cases will be succesful, but I think those kinds of claims will come in. But my advice would be that if you have a claim, you should put it in as soon as possible."

And Peard advises same-sex couples who were married in Maine and move to another state that doesn't recognize those marriages, to take legal steps to preserve their married status for the purposes of federal benefits.

While advocates say they're elated by Wednesday's decision, ACLU of Maine Legal Director Zach Heiden says it's important to remember that the decision only applies to federal benefits.

"But it does not provide for marriage equality for people in Illinois or Michigan or New Jersey or all the many states across the country where same-sex couples are not yet allowed to get married," Heiden says. "So this is a step along the way, but we're not at the finish line yet. And I hope this will energize people across the country as they work torwards that day where there's more full equality."

In a statement posted on its website, the Christian Civic League of Maine says it disagrees with the court's DOMA ruling, but that "these decisions do not change the timeless truth that marriage is the union between one man and one woman, and society as a whole and children, in particular, benefit from this model." It goes on to say, "We believe these decisions leave options open for a continued and vigorous advocacy of traditional marriage on a state-by-state basis."


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