By Jonathan Phelps
---- — NEWBURYPORT — The city’s Commission for Diversity and Tolerance heralded the Supreme Court’s decision to declare unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) yesterday.
The controversial act denied federal benefits, including inheritance and Social Security benefits, to legally married couples of the same gender.
“It is an important day for civil rights, particularly in light of the Court’s recent disappointing rulings that diminished both an employer’s responsibility for workplace discrimination as well as the power of the Voters’ Rights Act to prevent barriers to voting for certain minorities,” the group said in a written statement.
“The Commission celebrates this incredible milestone together with Newburyport’s LGBT community and all of its supporters,” said Rabbi Avi Poupko, chairman of the CDT.
The justices yesterday issued a 5-4 ruling that wiped away part of a federal anti-gay marriage law. The Supreme Court also ruled California’s Proposition 8, a gay marriage ban, as unconstitutional. It is expected that California will resume same-sex weddings in about a month.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion on DOMA, joined by the court’s liberal justices.
“Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways,” Kennedy said. “DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.”
David Mills said he felt a sense of relief yesterday after the Supreme Court struck down a provision of a federal law denying federal benefits to married gay couples.
The court also cleared the way for the resumption of same-sex marriage in California in a separate decision.
As an openly gay man, Mills, 70, a Danvers selectman, said he was unsure what the results would be leading up to the decision yesterday. He went to Washington, D.C., in March to watch several of the hearings on both decisions.
“This has been a lifelong battle for me to believe that I am a legitimate human being based under the cultural misunderstanding, hatred, the religious prejudice based on ignorance and violence that I grew up with,” Mills said. “The decision (yesterday) is monumental.”
Mills, a former Massachusetts Appeals Court judge, has previously said he’s lived with a “half-century of guilt and shame” about being gay. Noting the split vote and Republican opposition, “there are still pockets of bigotry and hate,” he said.
“This is another step,” said Mills of the ruling. “There needs to be awareness and education to overcome centuries of cultural and religious ignorance. Little by little the tide began to change as people realized they knew lesbian and gay people who finally were able to become visible and come out of the closet of social and cultural shame.”
Manchester-by-the-Sea resident Hope Watt-Bucci, who founded North Shore Pride last year, was in the car when two friends called her with the news about the ruling. She has been married to her wife Lisa for seven years, and they have been together for 11 years.
“It is a huge victory,” Watt-Bucci said. “I never thought I’d see marriage rights for the LGBT community in my lifetime. We’ve come a very long way in a very short period of time. There has been a lot of movement in the past decade.”
The decision comes as the group prepares for its second annual North Shore Pride Parade and festival in Salem on Saturday.
“I am ecstatic not only for the decision on DOMA, but also for the decision by the Supreme Court to say the ban on same-sex marriages in California is unconstitutional,” she said. “Finally California will be able to have marriage equality like Massachusetts.”
The ruling made waves yesterday across Massachusetts, which has allowed same-sex marriages since 2003.
“By affirming the principle that people come before their government as equals, today’s Supreme Court decision striking down DOMA is a win for the American people,” Gov. Deval Patrick said in a statement.
“By declaring DOMA unconstitutional, the Supreme Court has ensured that married couples previously denied over one thousand rights and privileges are fully recognized by their federal government,” said Congressman John Tierney in a statement. “Because of this historic decision, married gay and lesbian couples and their children will finally receive the legal protections they deserve.”
In a sign that neither victory was complete, the high court said nothing about the validity of gay marriage bans in California and roughly three dozen other states. And a separate provision of the federal marriage law that allows a state to not recognize a same-sex union from elsewhere remains in place.
Same-sex marriage has been adopted by 12 states and the District of Columbia. Another 18,000 couples were married in California during a brief period when same-sex unions were legal there.
The outcome is clear for people who were married and live in states that allow same-sex marriage — they now are eligible for federal benefits. The picture is more complicated for same-sex couples who traveled to another state to get married, or who have moved from a gay marriage state since being wed.
“My hope is there will be equality across the whole United States,” said Coco Alinsug, executive director of the North Shore Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Salem. He said there will still be struggles in some states.
Materials from the Associated Press were used in this report.