PORTLAND — For Maggie Poisson, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday to overturn a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act means she and her wife, Alissa Poisson, will be able to raise their 1-month-old son with the same rights and protections that other parents take for granted.
The couple from South Portland and their baby, AJ, stood Wednesday evening before a jubilant crowd of nearly 100 people at a rally at Portland City Hall celebrating the court’s 5-4 decision requiring federal recognition of same-sex marriages, which are legal now in Maine and 11 other states.
“Knowing that we can care for one another and care for our son gives us a peace of mind we didn’t have before,” said Maggie Poisson.
Wednesday was a historic day for gay rights, as the nation’s highest court issued two 5-4 decisions, one sweeping away part of the federal anti-gay-marriage law and the other clearing a legal challenge for same-sex marriages to resume in California.
The Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, has kept legally married same-sex couples from receiving tax, health and pension benefits that are otherwise available to married couples.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by the four liberal justices, said the purpose of the law was to impose a disadvantage and “a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states.”
Alissa Poisson, a Portland police officer, said the ruling provides protection under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act if one of them has to leave work for a family emergency.
“If something happens to me, then she could take time off to take care of me,” said Alissa Poisson, who carried AJ after he was conceived through artificial insemination.
Two other married women, Annie McPheeters and Meredith Johnson of South Portland, attended the City Hall rally with their baby boy, Calvin. The couple said the ruling means they will no longer have to file state taxes jointly while having to file federal taxes separately.
“Filing tax returns will be so much more simple. We actually had to hire an accountant for the first time ever this year because it was so complex,” Johnson said, holding Calvin.
McPheeters and Johnson said the court’s decision also adds a layer of security for their family.
“I’m just so happy knowing it finally happened,” McPheeters said of the court’s decision. “It’s also so great that this happened for Calvin. This will be just the way it is for him.”
Meanwhile, Bishop Richard Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which opposes same-sex marriage, issued a statement Wednesday calling it “truly a tragic day for marriage and for our nation.” He called the ruling wrong, saying it “goes against everything human reason teaches us about marriage.”
“Marriage between one man and one woman is not the same as same-sex relationships,” he said in the statement. “Therefore, treating them differently is not unjust discrimination and should not be ruled as such. If the law does not respect truth, it undermines the common good. Overturning DOMA gravely impacts the institution of marriage and the religious freedoms of those who uphold marriage and its redefinition.”
For the most part, Maine leaders applauded the ruling, as did many residents who are affected.
Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, said that as recently as two years ago, she would have been surprised to see such a ruling. But when the court issued its decision Wednesday, she wasn’t surprised.
“I actually felt this was the way it was going to go,” Smith said, “because of the momentum that has been building over the last several years, and some of it is because of what Maine has done and several other states. Maine has really led the way.”
In November, Maine voters decided in a statewide referendum to make same-sex marriage legal. The law took effect Dec. 29.
While Smith cheered the court’s decision, she said there is still much work to be done in the states that do not recognize gay marriage.
“But for Maine, for California, for all the states that do have marriage, and of course for all the country, it is a great and historic day,” said Smith, speaking in the Portland Press Herald newsroom.
Smith, who leads the statewide organization that promotes full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, said Wednesday’s ruling means that married same-sex couples in Maine will have the same federal protections and benefits as married heterosexual couples. There are more than 1,000 benefits and protections, she said.
Chris Kast of Portland said he was in his office Wednesday at The Brand Company in the Old Port, where he works as a brand strategist, when a friend came in and told him “DOMA’s gone.”
“I cried,” Kast said. “It made me feel really, really good.”
Kast, who married Byron Bartlett on Dec. 29 after seven years together, had said before the Supreme Court’s decision that he believed the federal law was very outdated, although it was less than 20 years old.
“I thank the wisdom of the majority of the Supreme Court for realizing it’s a relic,” he said.
Kast said opponents of same-sex marriage realize it does not pose a threat after seeing marriages like his to Bartlett, who was out of town Wednesday.
“The sky’s not going to fall, and heterosexual marriages aren’t going to melt like glaciers in the Sahara,” he said.
Kast said the ruling will not benefit him directly, but comes with the indirect benefit of saying to the whole country that “same-sex marriages are not an abomination.”
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who attended the first same-sex marriage in Maine on Dec. 29, also cheered the Supreme Court’s decision at the City Hall rally.
“Once again the state of Maine is leading the country, and the country is now following Maine,” Brennan said.
The rally was organized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and was timely for the lead speaker, Jill Barkley of Portland, the group’s public-policy advocate. She will marry her girlfriend, Trish Burkholder, in the same room on July 12.
Burkholder now lives in Toronto. The couple has had to live in a long-distance relationship until they are married and Barkley can file immigration papers for Burkholder to move to the United States.
“We are here today to say goodbye to the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act,” Barkley said to cheers and a round of applause. “I no longer have to choose between the person I love and the country I love.”
The ACLU represented Edie Windsor, whose case the Supreme Court considered. Windsor was forced to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes after her spouse, Thea Spyer, died in 2009.
Both of Maine’s U.S. senators issued statements in support of the Supreme Court’s decision, including Sen. Susan Collins, who declined to take a public position on same-sex marriage when the question was pending before Maine voters last year.
“DOMA was signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, before I was elected to Congress,” Collins said. “Since that time, in 2004 and 2006, I twice voted against amendments to the United States Constitution that would have banned same-sex marriages by pre-empting state laws. I did so because states have traditionally handled family law. I agree with the court’s decision that the federal government should not discriminate against couples married in states that choose to legalize same-sex marriages.”
Sen. Angus King said: “Today the United States Supreme Court delivered justice to thousands of gay Americans who, although legally married in their home states, have for far too long been wrongly denied the equality they deserve under the law. The landmark ruling represents a significant step forward in ensuring all married couples — all married couples — enjoy equal treatment under federal law and have access to all relevant benefits and protections.”
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud also issued statements applauding the court’s decision.
“DOMA was a bad law to begin with and the Supreme Court did the right thing in striking it down,” Pingree said in a written statement. “As voters and legislatures in Maine and states throughout the country have shown, the government has no business telling two people in a loving, committed relationship that they can’t get married. Although there is still a long way to go for true marriage equality in all 50 states, as of today the federal government won’t be standing in the way of that goal.”
Michaud said: “I applaud the justices for striking down the discriminatory ban that prohibits legally married same-sex couples and their children in states like Maine from receiving all of the rights, protections and responsibilities marriage affords. I was proud to speak out publicly for the freedom to marry when Question 1 was on the ballot last year, and I was personally proud to vote ‘Yes’ to allow all loving, committed couples in our state to obtain a marriage license.”
Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said his group, which campaigned last fall against same-sex marriage in Maine leading up to the ballot referendum, disagrees with the Supreme Court’s decision.
“That opinion assumes states have the right to force a definition of marriage upon the federal government. Most importantly, the court rejected the argument that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage,” Conley said. “We believe these decisions leave options open for a continued and vigorous advocacy of traditional marriage on a state-by-state basis. We are committed to continuing to defend the rights of Maine citizens to live by their conviction that marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Conley said that his group is committed to “vigorous advocacy for traditional marriage,” and also is committed to conducting that debate in a respectful manner.
— Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller contributed to this report.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: