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social sciences

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Bonauto, Mary (b. 1961)  
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In 1996, the trial court ruled that the state had not met its burden under the compelling interest standard, but stayed enforcement of its decision pending appeal to the Hawaii Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court sat on the appeal for over two years, which gave the legislature time to pass a proposed constitutional amendment reserving marriage to opposite-sex couples, and in the end no marriage licenses were ever issued to same-sex couples.

Still, the Hawaii court provided encouragement to Bonauto. In July 1997, she and two other lawyers, Beth Robinson and Susan Murray, filed suit in Vermont, challenging the state's prohibition of same-sex marriage. Vermont seemed promising because the state Supreme Court had issued a pioneering opinion in 1994 approving second-parent adoption for same-sex couples. In addition, Vermont's state Constitution is difficult to amend.

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The case, Baker v. State, was finally decided by the Vermont Supreme Court in December 1999. The ruling is a gay rights landmark, yet it left the attorneys "crushed." Instead of ordering the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the high court left it up to the legislature to devise a solution to the problem of inequality. The result was ''civil unions,'' in which the legal benefits of matrimony were extended to gay and lesbian couples, but they were denied the term marriage.

Bonauto soon decided to try again. In April 2001, she filed suit on behalf of seven Massachusetts gay and lesbian couples who had been denied marriage licenses.

The case, known as Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, reached Massachusetts' highest court in March 2003. Bonauto told the court that civil unions would not satisfy the requirements of the Massachusetts Constitution.

''The Vermont approach is not the best approach for this Court to take,'' she emphasized, for ''when it comes to marriage, there really is no such thing as separating the word 'marriage' from the protections it provides. The reason for that is that one of the most important protections of marriage is the word, because the word is what conveys the status that everyone understands as the ultimate expression of love and commitment.''

Five months later, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court handed down the ruling for which Bonauto had been waiting: an unparalleled 4-3 decision ending the exclusion of gay couples from marriage. The court concluded that "a person who enters into an intimate, exclusive union with another of the same sex is arbitrarily deprived of membership in one of our community's most rewarding and cherished institutions. That exclusion is incompatible with the constitutional principles of respect for individual autonomy and equality under law."

After a great deal of wrangling, the Massachusetts Legislature approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage but institute civil unions. However, notwithstanding the efforts of Governor Mitt Romney to block implementation of the Supreme Judicial Court's mandate, on May 17, 2004, for the first time in American history gay and lesbian couples entered into legal matrimony.

Although the victory in Massachusetts was shadowed by the possibility that it might be reversed by a constitutional amendment, Bonauto remained confident that once the public saw that marriage strengthens gay families, support for marriage equality would increase.

Bonauto's prediction was vindicated in June 2007, when the Legislature, acting as a constitutional convention, voted down an amendment to ban same-sex marriage by a vote of 45 to 151. Today large majorities in Massachusetts support marriage equality and it is in no danger of being reversed by popular vote.

Bonauto also played a prominent role in securing marriage equality in Connecticut. GLAD filed suit in 2004 seeking marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. The Connecticut Legislature responded in 2005 by establishing civil unions.

However, in 2008, the Connecticut Supreme Court declared unconstitutional both the state's prohibition of same-sex marriage and its civil union law. The court's majority, in a 4-3 decision, declared that "Interpreting our state constitutional provisions in accordance with firmly established equal protection principles leads inevitably to the conclusion that gay persons are entitled to marry the otherwise qualified same-sex partner of their choice. To decide otherwise would require us to apply one set of constitutional principles to gay persons and another to all others."

In 2009, Bonauto was instrumental in the successful effort to pass a marriage equality law in Maine, where she and Wriggens live. She helped organize an influential public hearing on the question, where both opponents and proponents of marriage equality were allowed to express themselves.

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