A test of same-sex civil rights

Related site: Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force

Gina Smith, left, and Heidi Norton, framed in a mirror in their Northampton living room Wednesday, are among seven gay and lesbian couples in Massachusetts who have filed suit against the state seeking the right to marry. JERREY ROBERTS photo

By STACEY SHACKFORD, Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer
Thursday, April 12, 2001 -- (NORTHAMPTON) - Like many parents, Gina Smith and Heidi Norton of Northampton fret over their children's health and sock away money for college. But because they are a lesbian couple, their family is legally less secure than heterosexual married parents.

Norton and Smith joined six other couples from across Massachusetts Wednesday in filing a lawsuit against the state, saying the practice of denying same-sex couples the right to marry is unconstitutional.

Filed in Suffolk Superior Court by the Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the lawsuit is potentially ground-breaking, many lawyers say.

Mary Bonauto, civil rights director for GLAD, was one of three attorneys who successfully defended gay civil unions in Vermont's highest court in the landmark case Baker vs. Vermont.

"This is an issue that has been percolating for years. Vermont has certainly raised hopes," Bonauto said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

"Massachusetts has a very proud tradition of supporting civil rights," added Bonauto. "We think this is a good time and a good place."

In December 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled unanimously that same-sex couples are entitled to the same benefits and protections as heterosexual married couples. That case spawned the Civil Union Bill, which created a special semi-married status for same-sex couples.

Bonauto said since that law took effect last summer, about 1,700 couples from more than 40 states have come to Vermont for civil unions, including more than 100 couples from Massachusetts.

But civil unions generally are not legally recognized in other states.

In Massachusetts, legislation entitled "An Act Relative To Marriage" has been filed in the House of Representatives to ensure such civil unions would not be recognized. State Rep. John Rogers, D-Norwood, filed the bill, which defines marriage to exclude same-sex couples.

The bill states, in part: "A marriage is a civil contract and shall be defined as a legal relationship between one man and one woman who consent to take each other exclusively as husband and wife..... Any other relationship shall not be recognized as a marriage or its legal equivalent."

Bonauto said she hopes Massachusetts will take the issue a step further than Vermont has by allowing gay couples to join in marriage, which is legally recognized in all states.

Bonauto said government-sanctioned marriage is an important right because it is a gateway to hundreds of responsibilities, benefits and protections the law provides.

A couple presses the issue

In an interview Wednesday in their home, Norton and Smith said they joined the GLAD suit in part because of concerns about their children, Avery, 5, and Quinn, 1.

"We want our kids to be safe with the knowledge that their parents' relationship is respected and protected," said Smith.

"When we explain it to Avery, it's surprising to him. Everybody he's ever known acts and thinks of us as married," said Norton. "This is kind of an effort to make real something we've had to work around all these years."

Though they knew they would be denied, Norton and Smith took blood tests and went to Northampton City Hall March 26 to ask City Clerk Christine Skorupski for a marriage license. Upholding the law of the commonwealth, Skorupski denied their request.

Norton and Smith bear Skorupski no ill will - she was, in fact, quite nice about it, they said.

But they decided to pursue the matter, and signed on with the GLAD lawsuit.

Norton and Smith have numerous practical reasons to get legally married: to be guaranteed hospital visitation rights should one of them fall ill; to receive survivor benefits should one die; and to use tax advantages for married couples.

Norton, director of operations at Market Street Research, and Smith, ombudsman at Smith College, are both 36 years old and have been together as a couple for 10 years.

They held a commitment ceremony in 1993 attended by 100 family and friends. In their minds, they are married. But to the state, they are not, and cannot, be married.

"In my mind, when you love someone and decide to spend the rest of your life with them, you get married," Norton said.

"Heidi and I have a deep commitment to each other," Smith said. "For each of us, our family is the most important thing there is."

In 1994 they moved to Northampton, where they began a family, take part in the local Quaker Meeting and volunteer in adult literacy and housing discrimination projects.

Norton said she and Smith decided to wait until same-sex marriage is allowed in Massachusetts rather than go to Vermont for a civil union, as some local couples have done.

"It's a mark of respect to the state, to give it a chance to do right by us," Norton said. "We're asking the community for a chance to respect us the way we respect it."

Northampton lawyer Laura Arbeitman said she helps her lesbian and gay clients secure some of the rights that married couples take for granted through a package of legal documents like durable powers of attorney and health care proxies.

"But without legal marriage for everyone, there's no way to fully bridge the gap through legal documents alone," Arbeitman said.

Cynthia Turnbull, of the Northampton and Springfield firm Katz, Sasson, Hoose and Turnbull, said many case laws address same-sex adoption and other family issues, and she is optimistic that the Massachusetts judiciary is ready to consider same-sex marriage.

Norton and Smith believe the time is right for changes to the law.

"I think our children will look back and be surprised that this lawsuit was necessary as late as 2001," Norton said.

© 2001 Daily Hampshire Gazette April 12, 2001