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Mary L. Bonauto ’83 Helps Win Major Same-Sex Marriage Case


A historic U.S. Supreme Court opinion today legalizes same-sex marriage across the country, a marriage-equality victory that seemed almost unimaginable even a few years ago. Civil rights lawyer and Hamilton alumna Mary Bonauto ’83 was one of the attorneys who argued against same-sex marriage bans before the court, and she won earlier legal victories that helped lay the groundwork for today’s decision.

We asked several Hamiltonians to share their thoughts about the court’s opinion, and this is what they had to say. (You can share your thoughts in the comments section of the story, on Hamilton’s Facebook page or on Twitter @hamiltoncollege.)


In the spring of 2004, as the head of the college Democrats, I helped organize a panel discussion in the chapel on the subject of gay marriage. The issue was heating up politically at the time, and the college Democrats thought the time was right for a campus discussion and to publicly declare our support for the issue. I didn’t know it at the time, but the issue would later become a very personal one for me.

A year after graduating from Hamilton, I finally admitted to myself what had taken a long time to come to terms with – I was gay. The first person I told was a former professor of mine, Yvonne Zylan, who met me for lunch and was a source of great comfort and support. My friends from Hamilton were also supportive, and shocked me at how little they cared (if at all).

While being gay certainly gave me a personal stake in the gay marriage debate, it became all the more important when I met someone who I wanted to marry. We were lucky enough to live in a place that allowed same-sex marriage, Washington, D.C., but knowing that people in other parts of the country couldn’t share the same legal benefits and societal recognition was maddening.

Throughout the course of a lifetime, there are only a handful of true historic breakthroughs – singular moments that will forever change people’s lives for the better. Today’s marriage equality decision from the U.S. Supreme Court is one of these moments. And knowing that it was a fellow Hamilton grad who not only argued the case, but who was largely responsible for the legal strategy that led to this moment, has made it all the more special.

—Jon Kuhl ’06, leader of Hamilton’s Washington, D.C. Spectrum chapter
 


I’m so proud of Mary and all that she has done to change behavior in this country.  Her groundbreaking work over the past 25 years, which I have followed closely, culminated in taking one of the most important civil rights cases in our lifetime all the way to the highest court in the nation. The stakes just don't get any higher than that, and I’m thankful she is my voice and conscience. Not to be overlooked is her ability to address detractors with the same compassion and respect with which she defends those she supports. It takes a very special person to take such a high road and I’d like to see her up on that Supreme Bench one day, which I don’t think is out of the realm of possibilities. Thank you, Mary, for making our lives infinitely better and the world more inclusive. You are my hero.

—John F. Hadity ’83, Alumni Association president and chair of the Alumni Council
 

The Supreme Court’s monumental ruling on the issue of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges is a great step toward fulfillment of the fundamental promises our country presents to its citizens: freedom and equality. I am satisfied that this decades-long debate has been finalized so favorably. This decision marks a very important moment for Americans, regardless of sexual orientation, because together we have established a more tolerant and inclusive community. Furthermore, I am very pleased that one of our own Hamilton alums, Mary Bonauto, has had such a significant contribution in breaking down the legal barriers facing same-sex marriage. It is truly a time of pride for both Americans and Continentals.

— Silvia Radulsecu ’17, a Hamilton Student Assembly leader
 

Today, people will either celebrate the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges as the proper exercise of the Court’s role in safeguarding basic rights or they will rail against it as the latest example of an activist judiciary departing from the enshrined language of a sacred Constitutional text.  But the matter is hardly as simple as either side might suggest. From the beginning, this case (like so many of the most difficult cases that reach the Court) was not susceptible to resolution by asking the Court to simply avail itself of one or another of the recognized methods of Constitutional interpretation – be it pragmatism, originalism, living Constitutionalism, textualism or some other mechanical technique. 

The Justices were always going to be tasked with the hard work of decoding the words “liberty” and “equality” in order to determine the Constitutional status of same-sex marriage. For the majority, as expressed in the characteristically solemn and empathic language of Justice Kennedy,“[the] denial to same-sex couples of the right to marry works a grave and continuing harm. The imposition of this disability on gays and lesbians serves to disrespect and subordinate them. And the Equal Protection Clause, like the Due Process Clause, prohibits this unjustified infringement of the fundamental right to marry.” 

Today, a majority of the Court emphatically reaffirmed the centrality of the principles of liberty and equality to our continuing aspiration to become a genuinely free and just society. Conservatives and progressives alike should applaud that aspiration, whether or not they favor same-sex marriage itself. This is an historic and triumphant day for the Court, and for us.

— Yvonne Zylan, chair and associate professor of sociology at Hamilton
 

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