Ria Tabacco Mar ’08 advocates for LGBTQ rights

Mar has worked on a number of significant cases for the ACLU and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Ria Tabacco Mar '08

From a young age, Ria Tabacco Mar ’08 knew she wanted to pursue public interest work, but “the question was how I would go about doing it,” she says. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Mar worked at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, a community-based, holistic public defense organization. The exposure to legal social justice work, she says, “really cemented that law would be the profession I would use to enter the public interest world.” Recently recognized in the National LGBT Bar Association “Best LGBT Lawyers Under 40” Class of 2016, Mar has firmly established herself as a commanding public interest advocate through her work on behalf of LGBT rights.

Mar attended NYU School of Law as a Root-Tilden-Kern Scholar, and she knew from the outset that she wanted to dedicate her career to protecting vulnerable communities. “It was clear that Ria was supremely committed to social justice,” remarks Sonia Lin ’08, general counsel and policy director at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Adds Sophia Bernhardt ’08, a staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, “Ria’s always had an incredible level of personal discipline, and that has allowed her to do this very high-level, demanding work.”

At the Law School, one of Mar’s most formative experiences was participating in the Juvenile Defender Clinic taught by Vice Dean Randy Hertz. “The lessons from that clinic transcend criminal law,” Mar says. “Randy taught us about narrative and how to tell a compelling story through advocacy, whether written or oral.”

Early in her career, as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Mar utilized those skills through her work on several amicus briefs in marriage equality cases, drawing parallels between current opposition to same-sex couples and earlier opposition to interracial couples. “There were these arguments that the children of those couples would somehow be inferior or that the marriages of interracial or same-sex couples somehow violated the natural order,” Mar says. “The historical parallels were really quite striking.”

Now, as a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Project, Mar continues to champion LGBT rights and has contributed to several notable cases, including as a member of the team that brought a case against Kim Davis, a Kentucky County Clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses in protest of the US Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality.

Mar notes that she was particularly proud of a case in which she represented a transgender woman in Arkansas, who, after transitioning, was fired from her job as an electrician and told that she was “too much of a distraction” to continue in the workplace despite her high work performance. “This kind of case is important for building the recognition that discrimination against LGBT people is a form of sex discrimination,” Mar notes. “It may be some time before we get explicit protection from Congress for LGBT people, but sex discrimination is already illegal under federal law.”

Most recently, Mar represented David Mullins and Charlie Craig, an engaged couple in Denver, Colorado, who were turned away from Masterpiece Cakeshop and told the bakery did not serve same-sex couples. Mar argued—and won—the case before the Colorado Court of Appeals. “She was absolutely phenomenal,” attests ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Leslie Cooper ’95, who watched Mar argue before the court. “She really dug into very complex First Amendment law and put together powerful arguments about why the First Amendment does not entitle public accommodations to discriminate.”

After the Colorado State Supreme Court rejected an appeal, Masterpiece Cakeshop petitioned the US Supreme Court to review the case. In June, the court agreed to hear the appeal. Mar hopes that the justices will recognize the legal precedent for the ACLU’s argument. “There is no license to discriminate just because the basis of your discrimination is religious belief,” she asserts. “In the 1960s, you saw businesses argue that religion gave them the right to discriminate against African-American customers, and the courts said no. In the 1970s and 80s, we heard employers arguing that religion should give them the right to discriminate against women, and the courts said no. There’s nothing about discrimination based on sexual orientation that requires a different answer.”

Posted January 13, 2017; Updated August 21, 2017