March 21, 2013

Momentous rulings awaited on marriage

Twenty years after the Defense of Marriage Act, the high court could settle the issue of equality.

By DAVID G. SAVAGE Tribune Washington Bureau

(Continued from page 1)

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Opponents of DOMA have fought for years to overturn it. Keegan O’Brien of Worcester, Mass., leads chants as members of the LGBT community protest DOMA outside a 2009 Democratic fundraiser featuring Vice President Joe Biden.

The Associated Press

YOUTH AT FOREFRONT OF A TIDAL CHANGE IN SOCIETAL ATTITUDES

A new public opinion survey is the latest to confirm a major social trend that shows no sign of ebbing: rising acceptance of same-sex marriage and homosexuality in America.

Fully one in seven adults (14 percent) say they've changed their mind about gay rights, often because they have a friend or family member who is gay, according to the Pew Research Center.

Recently, another national poll, by The Washington Post and ABC News, found that support for gay marriage is now at an all-time high.

The emergence of a younger, more tolerant generation has a lot to do with the overall change in public attitudes.

In the 18-32 age bracket, support for same-sex marriage is at 70 percent. Ten years ago, among members of the same generation, it was 51 percent. But support for same-sex marriage has also increased among those born between 1928 and 1945; in 2003 -- up from 17 percent to 31 percent.

Among those who have changed their minds, one in three say it's because they know someone who is gay.

"There was an outbreak of happiness. Weddings are joyous occasions, and they helped transform the debate," she said.

But practical problems remained because of DOMA.

Nancy Gill, a postal worker, could not put her spouse on her health insurance plan. She became the lead plaintiff in the suit. Many others, like Ritchie and Bush, faced tax problems. Still others faced the hardship of a spouse dying after a long illness. Herb Burtis, 81, spent 16 years caring for his partner of 60 years, but he was denied the survivors benefit under Social Security that goes to other married survivors.

Bonauto saw this as fundamentally unfair. "In our nation's history, the government (in Washington) has respected a state's determination of who is married. But this law singles out one category for marriages for public disrespect," she said.

The Obama Justice Department initially opted to defend DOMA, but in July 2010, U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro, a President Richard Nixon appointee, ruled it unconstitutional. It violated the rights of legally married gay couples, he said, and intruded on the state's turf in deciding who is married.

The administration appealed, but soon had second thoughts. In February 2011, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that legal discrimination against gays and lesbians could not be justified, they said.

In their place, House Republicans moved to defend DOMA and hired former Solicitor Gen. Paul Clement to argue the case. But last year, the U.S. court of appeals in Boston also said the law was unconstitutional.

Both sides agreed to send the Gill case to the Supreme Court for a final decision, but there was a glitch. Justice Elena Kagan had been Obama's solicitor general when the administration first defended the law, and she said she would not take part in deciding a case that she had worked on. Kagan specifically mentioned the Gill case.

So, the Supreme Court announced that all nine justices would decide a case filed later by a New York woman, Edith Windsor. She was required to pay $363,000 in estate taxes after the death of her spouse, Thea Spyer. A surviving spouse would not owe any such tax if the government recognized the marriage as legal. The case from Massachusetts, joined by the two women from Framingham, will be held by the high court and resolved based on the ruling in the New York case.

Reflecting on the last two decades, Ritchie and Bush say they have been surprised at how much has changed for lesbians and gays. "We've been very fortunate," Bush said, because they were accepted in the community as just another married couple with children.

If they win at the Supreme Court, the lawsuit could yield an asset for their sons' future. The judge's 2010 decision tallied year by year the amount that Ritchie and Bush had overpaid their federal taxes because they were barred from filing as a married couple. The total after nine years is about $40,000.

"It would be nice to have that for the boys' college education," Bush said.

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