Advocate Calls DOMA Ruling An Incredible Victory
Millions of Americans were eagerly anticipating Wednesday’s Supreme Court decisions regarding DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and Proposition 8 in California, which defined marriage in that state, as DOMA also defined marriage, as being legal only between a man and a woman.
Susan Murray is among those millions who were riveted to the high court rulings, but she has a more direct connection, both technically and emotionally, than most.
Murray is an attorney who was part of the legal team in the Baker vs. State of Vermont case that led to Vermont becoming the first state in the nation to recognize Civil Unions.
She also testified for repeal of DOMA in senate judiciary hearings led by Sen. Patrick Leahy in 2011 that ultimately culminated with the Supreme Court ruling that declared DOMA to be unconstitutional.
Murray said “It’s an incredible victory.” She immediately began receiving text and emails from friends both in Vermont and around the country as the ruling came out. “It’s a great day, and emotional day,” she said, her voice cracking.
Murray has been with the same spouse for 27 years. “She has been extremely patient all the time I’ve spent away from home working on the issue of marriage equality over the years.”
“Over the years there’s been what I call the “gay exception” to constitutional law, which is that most folks have constitutional rights applicable to them, but then there are gay people who don’t seem to have their rights protected the way others do, so that was always a possibility here,” she said.
But Murray said that the case that challenged DOMA, United States vs. Windsor was very compelling, and so the ruling was not unexpected.
Federal Recognition of Marriage
Same-sex couples have had the right to marry in Vermont since 2009, but the federal government didn’t recognize those marriages, which meant those couples didn’t have access to over a 1,000 federal benefits of marriage, including Social Security spousal benefits.
Murray recounted the story of a client who was a stay-at-home mother. Her spouse was killed in a car accident on the way to work, leaving her with a baby to support.
“If she had been legally married to a man, she would have been able to collect social security spousal survivor benefits from the federal government, but she wasn’t able to do that.”
Another client who worked for a big-box store in Vermont wasn’t able to add a same-sex spouse to their health insurance policy.
“This store said they didn’t have to do it because the federal government does not require employers to add health insurance and pension benefits,” Murray said.
“Yet another example of the harm that DOMA has done to same-sex married couples over the years, in Vermont.”
Murray said that the hope is that now married same-sex couples will be treated equally regardless of where they lived.
“So if a couple married in Vermont and then moved to Oklahoma, it is our hope that they will be considered by the federal government to be legally married. It’s not entirely clear whether federal law should look at the place of celebration of marriage for purposes of determining federal benefits or the place of residency,” she explained.
Murray said there are people asking federal agencies and the Obama Administration to issue executive orders to provide those protections to couples who are living in states that don’t yet recognize marriage between same-sex couples.
Murray expects support for same-sex marriage to only grow over the next few years, and said this ruling gives the movement momentum.
It’s a dream that’s moved her forward in the years she traveled the state with her friend, Beth Robinson, now a justice in the Vermont Supreme Court.
“She and I rode around the state for many, many months and years, talking to people about this and getting folks to become courageous enough to tell their stories to their neighbors, and their friends, and their co-workers and their family members. And we always talked about how 50 years from now none of this will matter and everybody will wonder what the big hullabaloo was all about. You know, I started working on this in 1993, so it’s actually only been 20 years,” Murray said.
Eventually the two worked on the case, Baker vs. the State of Vermont, which lead to the state’s landmark civil union law. Murray said a lot of people in Vermont worked hard on the issue when the idea of marriage equality was a foreign concept to most people.
“They took the time and they screwed up their courage to go out there and tell their stories and they did it night after night in places where it was hard time to do that. Those are the kind of people who are heroes in all this and I think it made a huge difference. It was a little tiny state, but it was a huge bombshell to the rest of the country,” Murray said.