In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court has struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that prevents federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
“DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court’s decision in the case of United States v. Windsor.
In 2007, Edith Windsor married her wife Thea Spyer in Toronto, Canada. Spyer passed away when the couple was living in New York, where same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions were recognized. Despite their marriage, she was denied the spousal exception on the estate tax and forced to pay $363,000 in taxes.
House Republicans spent millions in taxpayer funds defending the law after President Obama’s Department of Justice decided it was unconstitutional.
As a result of this ruling, Windsor will be eligible for the spousal exception on estate taxes along with Social Security benefits, the ability to file joint tax returns and hundreds of other benefits. DOMA was signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, who said he hoped to avoid a Supreme Court decision banning same-sex marriage. Clinton has since called for the law to be repealed. Section 2 of DOMA that allows states not to recognize same-sex marriages from other states is still in place, though will likely face legal challenges in the near future.
In his scathing dissent, Antonin Scalia attacked the majority’s decision as confused and overly simplistic. “In the majority’s telling, this story is black and white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us. The truth is more complicated,” he wrote.
He also said that the founders did not give the Court the power to dismiss legislation just because the Court disagrees with it. “Few public controversies will ever demonstrate so vividly the beauty of what our Framers gave us, a gift the Court pawns today to buy its stolen moment in the spotlight: a system of government that permits us to rule ourselves,” he wrote. This, however, was not a concern to him when he ruled to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in this same session.
The Court has also delivered what will likely be a death blow to California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage after the state’s Supreme Court found that it was legal. By a 5-4 vote in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Court decided that the activists who put the initiative on the ballot did not have the standing to defend the law after the state refused to do so.
“We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “We decline to do so for the first time here.”
Rulings by two lower courts and a federal court of appeals deciding that Prop 8 is unconstitutional will stand. The Justices did not touch on the central issue of the case, which argues that marriage is a right that should be ascribed to all citizens based on the 14th amendment. The Court clearly did not want to go that far.
Thus the battle for true marriage equality continues.
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