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Topics In the News
How We Got to the Supreme Court
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 03/25/13
Last updated on: 03/25/13
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Evan Wolfson.

On the eve of the arguments about marriage equality at the Supreme Court of the United States, it is useful to remember the contributions of the legal organizations and individuals who helped place equal rights on the high court's docket. These individuals include not only Theodore Olson and David Boies and the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which sponsored the Proposition 8 litigation now under consideration at the Court, but also such organizations as Lambda Legal, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), and the ACLU LGBT & AIDS Project, and attorneys and activists such as Evan Wolfson, Andrew Sullivan, Kevin Cathcart, Mary Bonauto, Therese M. Stewart, and Shannon Minter.

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund has been fighting for the civil rights of queer Americans and people with HIV/AIDS for over three decades. The group's first court battle was for its own right to exist. A panel of New York judges unanimously rejected their application as a nonprofit organization, finding in 1972 that their mission was "neither benevolent nor charitable" as required by law. However, founder William Thom won a reversal in the New York Court of Appeals and the organization was formally incorporated in 1973.

Since 1992, Lambda Legal has been led by executive director Kevin Cathcart. It was the lead counsel in two of the most significant cases in the history of the gay rights movement, Romer v. Evans (1996) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003). The organization also won a groundbreaking victory that brought marriage equality to Iowa in 2009 and has been involved in several of the challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

GLAD was founded in 1978. With headquarters in Boston, GLAD concentrates particularly on defending glbtq rights in the six New England states. As GLAD's executive director Lee Swislow recently observed, "New England has been fertile territory for the recognition of lgbt equality, yielding successes in every area of importance to our communities."

In 1998, GLAD won a Supreme Court ruling that people with HIV are protected from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But perhaps the most famous cases litigated by GLAD are Baker et al. v. State of Vermont (1999) and Goodridge et al. v. Department of Public Health (2003), the cases that resulted in civil union in Vermont and same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.

GLAD's strategy in achieving marriage equality was devised and executed by Mary Bonauto, director of the organization's Civil Rights Project. Bonauto has been compared to Thurgood Marshall, the legendary head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who argued Brown v. Board of Education, which found school racial segregation unconstitutional. Bonauto has not only litigated marriage equality cases in state courts throughout New England, but she has also won important victories in federal court. In Gill et al. v. Office of Personnel Management and Pederson v. Office of Personnel Management, she persuaded federal courts to declare DOMA unconstitutional. Bonauto, however, is not only a superb attorney, she is also an activist on behalf of equal rights.

Since 1986, the ACLU's efforts to protect the civil rights of glbtq people have been coordinated by the Gay Rights Project (later renamed LGBT & AIDS Project). Led by executive director Matt Coles since 1995, the Project has won notable victories in the area of employment discrimination, transgender rights, and marriage equality. It has participated in challenges to Proposition 8 and DOMA.

Founded in 1977 by Roberta Achtenberg and Donna Hitchens and led since 1998 by Kate Kendall, the National Center for Lesbian Rights has been a major participant in a number of high profile cases ranging from custody rights to immigrant rights. It is perhaps best known nationally for its work on behalf of marriage equality in California.

NCLR's legal director Shannon Price Minter represented Sharon Smith in her successful attempt to win the right to file a wrongful death suit after her partner, Diane Whipple, was mauled to death by a neighbor's dogs in San Francisco. He gained national recognition in 2008 when he successfully argued the "Marriage Case" before the California Supreme Court. After that victory was nullified by the passage of Proposition 8, he appeared before the Court in an unsuccessful effort to restore marriage equality in the Golden State.

Another attorney who has helped further the rights of glbtq people is Therese M. Stewart, who headed a team of deputy city attorneys representing the City and County of San Francisco in the marriage cases that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage by the California State Supreme Court. In addition, she represented San Francisco in the challenges to Proposition 8, including the case now pending before the United States Supreme Court.

Stewart has a long history of representing parties in glbtq civil rights cases and served as the first openly gay President of the Bar Association of San Francisco.

Perhaps no one deserves more credit for making marriage equality a priority within the glbtq community and for bringing it to national attention than Freedom to Marry's Evan Wolfson and political journalist Andrew Sullivan.

As Chris Geidner observes in a BuzzFeed profile of the two, "Wolfson and his unlikely compatriot in the cause--the self-identified conservative-libertarian writer Andrew Sullivan--have been arguing forcefully and persuasively that achieving marriage equality is the key step to advancing gay rights in society. Although neither will be talking to the justices this week, their writings--and lives' work--echo throughout the arguments that have resulted in successful court decisions and unprecedented public support for their once-novel proposal."

Wolfson began writing about marriage equality in 1983 as a student at Harvard Law School. Sullivan wrote his first article about marriage in 1989. Often against strident opposition from the left as well as from the right, they have devoted much of their careers to the proposition that, in the words of Wolfson's Harvard Law School essay, "a society, where people are equally free to love and choose according to the dictates of their heart, best promotes the just and moral pursuit of happiness."

As we observe history being made this week at the Supreme Court, we need to remember the individuals and organizations that helped us get there.

In the video below, Mary Bonauto explains the significance of the Pederson v. Office of Personnel Management, a lawsuit brought by GLAD in which DOMA was declared unconstitutional.

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