in brief: U.S. Supreme Court rules DOMA unconstitutional
The United States moved one step closer to marriage equality today. The highest court in the country ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional by a ruling of 5-4. The decision (United States vs. Windsor) will extend rights to legally married same-sex couples, an act that legitimizes the marriages beyond the symbolic union.
Under DOMA – implemented by the Clinton administration in 1996 – same-sex spouses were denied the constitutional protection and legal rights that are considered givens for heterosexual couples: things like health benefits, Social Security, veterans’ benefits, inheritance rights and retirement savings.
‘By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment,’ the court wrote.
The majority decision also recognized that DOMA excluded spouses from protection from domestic violence and unfairly burdened children by ‘[raising] the cost of health care for families by taxing health benefits provided by employers to their workers’ same-sex spouses.’
The act has been a hurdle for marriage equality activists for years but no more so than for the thousands of married couples directly impacted; couples like Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer, who were married in Toronto, Canada in 2007 (same-sex marriage did not become legal in their home state of New York until 2011). Windsor and Spyer were together for 40 years until Spyer died in 2009 of multiple sclerosis. However, under DOMA, Windsor was not recognized as the recipient of her partner’s estate and as instead left with a tax bill of over $300,000 when her request for an estate tax refund was denied.
She took her case to the Supreme Court in December after winning her appeal.
Their story, which was the subject of a documentary in 2009, has been at the centre of the case to strike down the discriminatory law, the end of which coincides with California’s decision not to reinstate Proposition 8, the other notorious heterosexist marriage law. That means, wrote The Atlantic, ‘30 percent of Americans live in a state where gay marriage is legal.’
While this is a huge step into the 21st century for the United States and a long-overdue victory for supporters of marriage equality, there are still 37 states in which same-sex marriage is illegal. Section 2 of DOMA still allows individual states to write their own marriage laws. Since 2009, six states have legalized same-sex marriage, three this year alone.