June 23, 2018
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Maine lawyer who won landmark gay marriage case warns of civil rights backlash

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff
Updated:

Mary Bonauto didn’t really want to argue for marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court in April 2015.

She’d been doing that as an attorney with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in state and federal courts all over the country for years. The civil rights attorney was “deeply exhausted” and wanted to go home to her spouse, Jennifer Wriggins, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, and their two children in Portland and rest.

But the high court had consolidated cases from four states. Less than a month before the arguments were to be heard, Bonauto was the only person all the lawyers involved could agree on to stand before the nine justices and answer their rapid-fire questions.

“So what did I do? I called my spouse,” Bonauto, 56, recalled Tuesday following a speech at the Bangor Public Library. “She knows I’m a total preparer and what that would mean. We told the kids they had to do the laundry and all this other stuff. And I moved to D.C. and I stayed in a room and I worked super hard.”

Bonauto described her preparation for the case in a question-and-answer session following an hour-long presentation at the library on civil rights in Maine and the nation. The event was part of the Dirigo Speaks series sponsored by the Bangor Daily News.

“So, it’s a big day for me,” Bonauto said of presenting oral arguments before the Supreme Court on April 25, 2015. “I think people thought I wasn’t really going to dress well because somebody came and picked me out some clothes. I tried not to be offended. It was a nice dress. And then they decided they should send somebody to put makeup on me. I don’t normally wear makeup but whatever.”

Bonauto next got into a taxi for what she thought would be a short ride to the Supreme Court, but it became clear that the taxi driver had not understood where he was supposed to take her. Bonauto, in frustration, jumped out of the cab and dashed to the courthouse, dragging her bag behind her.

“I made it on time. It was a little of a stressful start, but my spouse and our kids were there,” she said. “When I stood at the podium, all I could do to reassure myself was to say to myself, ‘You are right. You are right. You’re right. This is right.”

And the justices narrowly agreed.

She described June 26, 2015 — the day the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Constitution’s guarantees of due process and equal protection mean that states cannot ban same-sex marriages — as “awesome.”

But Bonauto warned the audience of about 60 people that the work to keep the backlash against civil rights at bay continues, despite how people’s attitudes toward gay marriage have evolved over time.

In 1990, 70 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, she said, citing a Gallup poll. As of May 2018, 67 percent supported gay marriage.

“I am very conscious that this is recent and opinions can change,” Bonauto said. “There is still a solid one-third of the population who oppose same-sex couples.”

She told the audience that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the case over a Colorado baker’s refusal on religious grounds to supply a wedding cake for a same-sex couple was not the end of the issue. Other cases over the denial of services to gay and transgender people will be before the justices in the next few years, she said.

The court last week ruled 7-2 in favor of the baker, finding that Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission had been hostile to the baker’s faith. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, arguing that the actions of a few commission members did not alter the fact that the baker had violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination law.

In answer to a question from the audience Tuesday, Bonauto said she agreed with the majority.

“We have diverse religious faiths in this country,” she said. “I think respecting faith is an important value for all of us in that sense. This was a limited decision. [The baker] wins this round. I think it’s important for people to be able to express their faith, but it is also important to respect LGBTQ people.”

LGBTQ is the abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and questioning.

Bonauto’s recent work includes representing youth incarcerated at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. The state’s only juvenile prison has been criticized for its inability to offer treatment and rehabilitation to youth incarcerated there following the suicide of a transgender inmate in November 2016.

“At one point, it was estimated that one-third of the youth there are LGBTQ,” she said.

Bonauto said that what she has seen on her visits to Long Creek is “intense human suffering.”

“These are not scary people,” she said. “They really need to get the care and attention they need so these behaviors go away and these young people can grow.”

She urged members of the audience to support school policies that prohibit harassment of transgender youth even though they are protected under state law.

Bonauto’s work has been recognized with numerous awards, including the 2014 MacArthur Fellowship. She is the Shikes Fellow in Civil Liberties and Civil Rights and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, serves on an advisory board for the American Constitution Society and has also served as co-chair of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee of the American Bar Association’s Section on Individual Rights and Responsibilities.

Bonauto graduated from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and Northeastern University School of Law in Boston.

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