PORTLAND — Suzanne Blackburn said she really shouldn’t care whether the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to same-sex spouses.
After all, she’s in a long-term relationship with her partner, Joanie Kunian. And she lives in Maine, where voters approved same-sex marriage in a referendum last fall, clearing the way for Blackburn and Kunian to get married next month.
On the other hand, Blackburn said, DOMA represents an inequality that she believes shouldn’t exist.
“It matters,” she said. “It really, really matters.”
The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on the constitutionality of the 1996 law, which defines marriage as between a man and woman. Because of that, same-sex couples married in Maine or the eight other states that, along with the District of Columbia, allow same-sex marriage are denied a slew of benefits at the federal level.
The denied benefits range from the ability to file a joint federal income tax return, to receiving a spouse’s Social Security or veteran’s benefits, to the ability to inherit a deceased spouse’s estate, free of estate taxes.
Blackburn, who is 62, and Kunian, who is 51, have not been excluded from accessing each other’s benefits yet, Blackburn said, but it will be an issue in a few years when they hit retirement age.
“It’s basically about how do we care for each other, how do we take care of each other,” Blackburn said. “You build a life with someone and you still aren’t treated fairly.”
Andrew McLean, 27, a state representative from Gorham, and Kyle Bailey, 29, who works for Equality Maine, are even further away from having to consider things like Social Security benefits and estate taxes. But McLean said the couple, who married on Dec. 29, 2012, the first day same-sex marriages were allowed in Maine, recognize the frustrations the act causes for older gay and lesbian couples.
“They’re talking about end-of-life issues. Marriage is a really incredibly important thing for these folks,” he said. “It’s not just about the marriage, it’s about, ‘What do I do if my (spouse) dies?’ Those are the real inequities.”
McLean said overturning DOMA is important, not just for the possibility of expanded access to federal benefits and the ability to operate on a level playing field, but also as a statement of the principle that states should have the power to expand marriage to more people.
“I can see the Supreme Court striking down DOMA, not because it has to do with same-sex marriage but because it has to do with how we run our country, that states should have the ability to define how they want marriage,” he said.
Even though DOMA is less than 20 years old, Chris Kast of Portland said it strikes him as a relic of a different era.
“I think it’s from an earlier era of, not necessarily intolerance, but misunderstanding,” he said, a time when people saw same-sex marriage as a threat to traditional, heterosexual marriages.
Kast, who married his partner, Byron Bartlett, on Dec. 29, said that if DOMA is stuck down, “people will actually realize that the collapse of the world will not happen when same-sex marriages are legalized everywhere.”
Dmitry Bam, an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said that while it’s significant that the Supreme Court has taken up the issue of same-sex marriage, its ultimate rulings, which may come as early as June, may not be earth-shattering.
Most analysts suspect the court will sidestep a ruling on the same-sex marriage case it heard Tuesday that dealt with Proposition 8, a ballot measure in California that repealed same-sex marriage in that state.
But based on questions posed by the justices Wednesday, the court may strike down DOMA, Bam said, because Congress can’t point to a portion of the U.S. Constitution that allows it to define marriage.
That “would still be a big win” for same-sex marriage supporters, he said, but by declining to rule whether states can ban same-sex marriages, he said, “the court is probably really thinking that maybe they’re not quite ready to step into that fray yet.”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: