Frances Herbert and Takako Ueda hold their dogs Little Bear, left, and Yuki, at their home in Dummerston. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Frances Herbert and Takako Ueda hold their dogs Little Bear, left, and Yuki, at their home in Dummerston. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Thursday June 27, 2013

DUMMERSTON -- Frances Herbert has been married to Takako Ueda since April 2011.

But after Wednesday's landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, the American-born Dummerston resident could -- for the first time -- deliver this message to her Japanese-born wife: "The best thing we can say now, which really has true meaning, is ‘welcome home' to Takako," Herbert said.

That's because the court's decision, by a 5-to-4 majority in United States v. Windsor, to strike down a section of the law known as DOMA clears the way for Ueda to finally receive a spousal green card from U.S. immigration officials.

Though the same-sex couple is legally married in Vermont, Ueda's green-card application was denied in late 2011 because the federal law had defined marriage exclusively as a union between one man and one woman.

That had left Ueda vulnerable to deportation until May 2012, when -- after lobbying by Vermont's congressional delegation -- she was granted a temporary reprieve by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

That "deferred action" status, however, was set to expire in May 2014. So the couple's only hope for permanent relief was modification -- or repeal -- of DOMA.

That came Wednesday via news of the Supreme Court decision, which says same-sex couples are entitled to the same federal benefits that are available to heterosexual couples.

"We're just completely thrilled and delighted that the Supreme Court justices realize that this was an absurd discrimination, and people finally will be able to celebrate with love and joy their relationships in the United States," Herbert said.

For Ueda, the court ruling ends years of worry.

"I am so glad and happy that finally our relationship was recognized, and we can be who we are -- and that's the most important thing," she said.

The couple has been represented by Immigration Equality, a New York-based organization that provides free legal counsel to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants and asylum seekers.

Immigration Equality spokesman Steve Ralls said that when the Supreme Court news arrived Wednesday morning, he spoke to Takako and Ueda soon afterward.

"They were just tremendously happy to hear the news," Ralls said, adding that the ruling has major implications for same-sex couples across the nation.

"Some of the couples we represent have waited decades to apply for green cards," Ralls said.

The Dummerston couple was part of a federal lawsuit filed by Immigration Equality. The complaint, in the Eastern District of New York, sought to have DOMA declared unconstitutional and to allow the five couples involved to obtain green cards. That suit had been put on hold by a judge pending the outcome of the Supreme Court ruling.

"Essentially, the victory in the Windsor case means there is a victory in our case," Ralls said.

He believes Ueda should be able to receive her long-awaited green card relatively quickly, noting the government's earlier denial of her application.

"We actually will be asking for the administration to reopen that case -- we do not believe it will be necessary to file a new application," Ralls said.

Ueda said she has been "touched" by the steadfast support of Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont's congressional delegation. On Wednesday, the three members of that delegation each applauded the Supreme Court decision.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has advocated for repealing DOMA. Leahy's office said he chaired the first congressional hearing examining the law's effects on families, and he also has repeatedly introduced legislation that would allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their non-citizen, same-sex spouses for green cards.

"Today's ruling confirms my belief that the Constitution protects the rights of all Americans, and that no one should suffer from discrimination based on who they love," Leahy said Wednesday. "Edith Windsor and thousands of gay and lesbian individuals and families across the country have had their rights vindicated by the Supreme Court's decision. I share the joy of those families this morning, although there is still work to be done. This ruling upholds the motto engraved in Vermont marble above the Supreme Court building that declares, ‘Equal justice under the law.'"

Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders said the ruling is "a special victory for gays and lesbians married in Vermont and the increasing number of other states that followed our lead in granting same-sex couples the same rights as everyone else."

Sanders' office said that, as a member of the U.S. House in 1996, he was one of 67 representatives who voted against DOMA. He and Leahy also have participated in "friend of the court" briefs that had urged the court strike down the law.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Welch said Wednesday's court decision was "a positive step on the inevitable path to full equality."

"The highest court in the land has properly thrown on the trash heap of history a discriminatory law that denies rights to Americans based on who they love," Welch said. "With this uplifting decision, the court is sending a clear message to our country: The days of denying rights to same-sex couples are numbered."

Welch added that "the court should now finish the job" by voiding laws in states that ban same-sex marriage.

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell also praised the court's ruling, noting that it will allow married Vermonters to receive equal treatment for Social Security, veterans' benefits and other programs.

"This is a good day for civil rights. All of those legally married under Vermont law will be entitled to equal treatment under federal law," Sorrell said.

"This great result was achieved not by lawyers and judges, but by ordinary Americans, including many Vermonters, who have fought for decades to achieve equality and fairness."

Debbie Potter, executive director of Brattleboro-based Green Mountain Crossroads, said it is "heartening to see how public opinion has changed on the issue of same-gender marriage."

"As a local organization working toward the health, wellness and happiness of LGBTQ individuals, we think this ruling is a huge boost to all of those factors," Potter said. "All of us are healthier and happier people when blatant discrimination is struck down and removed from law. What helps any group struggling with hatred and oppression helps everyone."

Potter also said she is "hopeful that this ruling will move us as a society much closer to the strong recognition that same-gender relationships must have all the rights and privileges and benefits of opposite-gender relationships."

"This is never clearer to us here at GMC as when we hear another tragic story of a husband or wife or non-married life partner being removed from the hospital room or bedside of an injured or dying loved one," Potter said. "This must not continue to happen, and legal moves such as these help us to work toward more protections of the rights of intimate partners."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.