It was a historic day last Wednesday for the cause of same-sex marriage, but the movement still has a long way to go.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a key section of the Defence of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, assuring that same-sex couples wed in states where it is legal will no longer be denied important federal benefits available to other married people.
That’s a monumental marker of how far the nation has moved toward acceptance of same-sex marriage since 1996, when Congress overwhelmingly passed DOMA and President Bill Clinton signed it into law. Same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in any state at the time.
In a companion ruling, the court cleared the way for California to become the 13th state where same-sex couples can legally marry. The justices threw out a case by private parties seeking to reinstate Proposition 8, the discredited ballot referendum that sought to outlaw same-sex marriage. It is likely to be another month before marriages among all people can resume in California, but when it happens about one-third of Americans will live in states where that’s allowed.
For those who believe that same-sex marriage should be legal in all 50 states, however, the court clearly didn’t go far enough. A ruling that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry would have settled the matter, but this conservative court clearly wouldn’t go that far. So for now, advocates will have to fight on in a state-by-state battle for recognition of their rights. While the DOMA decision is an advance for same-sex marriage, the court didn’t strike down the provision giving states the right to refuse to recognize gay marriages performed in states where it is legal.
The challenge to the federal ban was begun by Edith Windsor, a New York woman who married her partner, Thea Spyer, in Canada in 2007. Windsor sued after she was forced to pay more than $360,000 in inheritance taxes when Spyer died in 2009. She was denied an exemption from that tax obligation routinely extended to married couples because DOMA, which defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman, excludes a same-sex partner from its definition of spouse.
The law affected more than 1,000 federal statutes: for example, eligibility for Social Security survivors benefits, the right to file joint tax returns and even the immigration status of same-sex spouses. Providing federal benefits to heterosexual couples while denying them to same-sex couples in the states where they are allowed to marry is blatantly discriminatory.
"DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others," the court said in the decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said Congress should decide DOMA’s fate, and accused the majority of unfairly branding anyone who supports the traditional definition of marriage as a bigot. Many aren’t but they are on the wrong side of the dispute.
The rulings were wins, but there is still much work to be done to advance the cause of marriage equality. The discrediting of DOMA and clearing the way for same-sex couples to marry in California were the result of a powerful grassroots movement. Now it has the wind at its back.