When Maine voters legalized same-sex marriage in November, they made a historic decision to uphold equal treatment and lend legal recognition to the love and commitment of gay couples, many of whom had already made lives or raised children together. While the Maine decision granted state benefits to married gay couples, however, the federal government continued to discriminate and deny them the more than 1,000 marital-related benefits, rights and privileges that flow from federal law.
That is, until Wednesday. Shortly after 10 a.m., the United States learned that its highest court had struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and defines spouse as only “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.” That means same-sex couples who are legally married in Maine — and 11 other states and the District of Columbia — will be entitled to equal treatment with regards to the benefits that come with marriage.
The decision in U.S. v. Windsor does not establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. The case was never about that. It was about recognizing that a few sentences in the 1996 law violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by requiring the federal government to exclude legally married gay couples from the benefits and burdens accorded all other married people. The decision respects state law and recognizes that the federal government is not justified in treating same-sex couples, who are committed in marriage in their own states, as single for the purposes of all federal laws and programs.
As the court opinion states, “DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty. It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper.”
The court case originated with one gay couple, Thea Clara Spyer and Edith Windsor, whose marriage was recognized by the state of New York. Spyer died in 2009 after a 42-year relationship, leaving her entire estate to Windsor, who tried to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. She was prevented from doing so, however by DOMA, and paid $363,053 in estate taxes. She sought a refund but was denied one by the Internal Revenue Services.
Even though she held a marriage license, she was not allowed the same benefits as opposite-sex married couples. She is now.
DOMA was insulting and unconstitutional. We are happy for the couples and their families who now have another level of legal recognition. A man or woman who loses a partner will be able to receive Social Security survivor benefits. Same-sex couples will be able to file joint federal tax returns. Gay spouses will be able to take family medical leave. These benefits are part of marriage. They are also just. The Supreme Court confirmed it.