Mary Bonauto has already made history over the past two decades with her work as the lead lawyer in court cases that opened the door for same-sex marriage in Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

When she steps into a federal courthouse in Boston on Thursday, the Portland resident will be at it again.

Bonauto heads up the legal team that seeks to strike down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. The law defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.

Section 3 of the law — the section targeted by Bonauto and the 19 plaintiffs she represents — disqualifies gay and lesbian couples from receiving federal protections and benefits that are available to heterosexual married couples, such as shared Social Security, disability and tax benefits.

The Defense of Marriage Act essentially overrides state laws and court orders in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont, where same-sex marriages are legal.

Nancy Gill and Marcelle Letourneau of Bridgewater, Mass., are the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Gill, a Postal Service worker, tried unsuccessfully to add her wife to a family health insurance plan after they were married in 2004.

“They are paying taxes, Social Security, doing all the things the government asks of them, and yet the federal government treats them as though they are unmarried,” Bonauto said.

The lawsuit was brought against the federal government in March 2009 by the Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. Bonauto has been the civil rights project director at GLAD since 1990.

U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro will hear arguments on the merits of the case Thursday. No matter which side wins this round, Bonauto said, the case will likely be appealed to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Arthur Leonard, a professor at New York Law School and a gay rights advocate, said people across the country are watching the case.

“The Gill case is the lead case now on the constitutionality of the provisions of DOMA that deny equal protections to gay and lesbian couples,” Leonard said.

Leonard described Bonauto as “one of the dynamos in the gay rights movement.”

“She goes out there and wins these impossible-to-win cases,” Leonard said.

Bonauto, 48, lives in Portland with her partner of 22 years, Jennifer Wriggins, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law. They have twin daughters. The couple wed in Massachusetts, but their marriage is void in Maine.

The Maine Legislature last spring passed a short-lived law that recognized same-sex marriage. That law was repealed by a statewide referendum in November. Bonauto was among the leaders of the No on One campaign, which sought to retain the law.

Bonauto grew up in Newburgh, N.Y., and graduated from Hamilton College and Northeastern University School of Law. She came to Portland in the late 1980s and worked briefly as an associate at Mittel Asen LLC before accepting the job with GLAD in Boston. Bonauto commutes to Boston at least once a week, but she is able to do most of her work in Portland.

In 1999, Bonauto and two Vermont lawyers won a ruling that prompted the state Legislature to enact the nation’s first “civil union” law for same-sex couples.

Bonauto then served as lead counsel in a landmark case in Massachusetts, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health. In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared that it was unconstitutional to prohibit civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples. The first legal same-sex marriage ceremonies ever performed in the U.S. were conducted in Massachusetts in May 2004.

Bonauto said she is goal-oriented and focused on the details of the cases, so she does not often stop to ponder the historic nature of her work.

“I’m dealing with people who have real problems, who are dealing with discrimination,” she said. If anyone should be recognized for the court rulings, Bonauto said, it should be the plaintiffs and the judges, not the lawyers.

“I do this work because I believe in the bedrock American promise of liberty and justice for all,” she said. “The story of America is that we keep trying to live up to that promise, embracing as full citizens people who were once outsiders.”

Critics, while they disagree with her beliefs, recognize Bonauto as a formidable opponent.

Robert Emrich, who helped lead the campaign that repealed Maine’s same-sex marriage law last year, said he expects to face Bonauto again in the future.

“I don’t know her personally, but I know she has been involved in some pretty significant court rulings,” said Emrich, a Baptist minister from Plymouth who is running for the state House of Representatives.

“I certainly think she is wrong on this issue,” he said.

Emrich also disagrees with efforts to seek gay marriage rights through the state and federal courts. The people of each state should decide such issues through the referendum process, such as the one Maine went through, or at least through acts of the Legislature, he said.

“Every time it goes to a ballot, people vote to protect traditional marriage,” Emrich said.

Bonauto has continued to consult with other leaders of Maine’s movement for same-sex marriage. Her hope is that the Legislature will pass another bill in the next few years, and that Mainers will have another opportunity for a statewide vote.

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, has worked with Bonauto on gay rights issues in Maine since 2005.

“We were working on a weekly, sometimes daily basis” on the No on One campaign in 2009, Bellows said. “We continue to meet monthly on marriage equality.

“Mary possesses a rare combination of intellect and fire that benefits all of us who care about equality,” Bellows said. “You don’t often get to work next to someone whose name will clearly make it into history books, and yet here she is shoulder to shoulder with everyone on the ground.”

 

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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