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Supreme Court Brief: Marriage Equality—It’s Personal

Jean Podrasky and Grace Fanzano are among the hundreds of couples who’ve thronged to Washington this Easter week to watch the Supreme Court hear arguments in two different cases involving same-sex marriage.

This past weekend, people started lining up to attend the Court session, which has become the hottest ticket in Washington, D.C. But Podrasky, 48, will attend as a special guest of one of the Justices: her first cousin, Chief Justice John Roberts.

Today the Court will hear arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry in order to evaluate the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8—a voter initiative, passed in November 2008, that erased the right to marriage established by  the California Supreme Court earlier that year. Tomorrow they will hear a challenge to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act in Windsor v. New York.  The stakes are high for couples like Podrasky and Fanzano: According to the Williams Institute, a legal think tank, the repeal of Prop 8 can affect 100,000 California couples, while the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages, has direct impact on the 20 percent of the estimated 645,000 same-sex couples in the U.S. who live in jurisdictions where they can legally marry.

jean-podrasky“I know that my cousin is a good man,” Podrasky writes in a blog post written for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “I feel confident that John is wise enough to see that society is becoming more accepting of the humanity of same-sex couples and the simple truth that we deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and equality under the law. I believe he understands that ruling in favor of equality will not be out of step with where the majority of Americans now sit.” According to the polls, Podrasky is right in that last statement: Nowhere in this country does the legalization of same-sex marriage enjoy less than majority support, with more conservative states clocking in at 54 percent and support much higher elsewhere. And, as has been widely noted, those polls are a sign of swift and profound change from the political landscape of just a decade ago.

Full disclosure: I can hardly count myself a neutral observer. As many WVFCers know, I married my longtime partner in Canada in 2010; before then, my wife and I were co-plaintiffs in the 2004 lawsuit Shields v. Madigan (we lost).

27spyer.190-1And while I was a newspaper reporter, I had the privilege of interviewing Edith Windsor, now the lead plaintiff in the New York case, in 2007—the same year she married the love of her life, Thea Spyer, in Canada, after they’d already been together for 42 years. (In the photo at left, Windsor is the winsome wife at right.)

I interviewed Windsor for an article about the Empire State Pride Agenda’s “Marriage Ambassadors,” trained volunteers who traveled throughout New York talking to congregations and legislators to share the challenges faced by real-life gay couples.  And as the movie below makes clear, such activism was par for the course for Windsor, a computer programmer for IBM, and attorney Spyer: It also bore fruit in 2011 in the New York State Legislature.  But by then, Spyer had died (she died  in 2009), and Windsor had been hit with an estate tax of more than $300,000 that would never have been required if Thea had been Theo. Thanks, “Defense of Marriage Act.”

I’ll leave it up to the political pundits and SCOTUS-geeks out there to take bets on how wide or narrow the ruling will be, and to monitor the responses from potential swing voters Roberts (whose health-care ruling last year was unexpected) and Justice Kennedy, a moderate jurist who is now famous for a pair of pro-gay-rights rulings, Romer v. Evans (1996) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003).  But whatever happens this week or in June, few expect the status quo to continue indefinitely.

“There’s no putting this genie back in the bottle,” Florida-based Republican strategist Ana Navarro said Sunday on CNN. “This is now undeniable. The shift is here. We’re not going back.”

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