- Sasha Issenberg
March 3, 2009: Mary Bonauto files DOMA suit
Updated: May 7, 2021
ON THIS DAY IN 2009...
New England attorney Mary Bonauto filed the first lawsuit in which legally married couples challenged the Defense of Marriage Act as constitutional.
Bonauto had been hunting for potential plaintiffs for such a lawsuit ever since the day in May 2004 when Massachusetts had become the first state in the United States to legally marry. That change stemmed from her success litigating Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, in which Bonauto convinced Massachusetts’s top court that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples violated the state constitutional guarantees. While gays and lesbians could now receive all the benefits that Massachusetts afforded to married couples, the federal government did not recognize their families — one of two key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton.
The Boston-based public-interest firm where Bonauto served as the chief litigator, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, began collecting stories of couples who fell into that gap, and the hardship it caused them. There was the widower of a retired congressman who couldn’t collect his husband’s pension, and the man who was told he could not change the surname on his passport so it would match that of his husband and their college-age daughter. Others missed out on tax refunds, Social Security checks, and medical-leave periods extended to federal employees. GLAD directed these people to request what they were owed, and pursue every possible administrative appeal, no matter how hopeless.
By early 2009, Bonauto had eight same-sex couples and three widowers whose experiences represented a range of harms that the Defense of Marriage Act had inflicted on individuals. They became plaintiffs in Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, in which Bonauto argued that the disparate treatment mandated by the Defense of Marriage Act violated equal-protection guarantees. “We picked programs every American can relate to,” Bonauto said at the press conference unveiling the lawsuit.