Supreme Court strikes down Defense of Marriage Act

The United States Supreme Court today struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that the 1996 law that redefined marriage as between a man and a woman discriminates against same-sex couples and thereby violates the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.

“The Act’s demonstrated purpose is to ensure that if any State decides to recognize same-sex marriages, those unions will be treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law. This raises a most serious question under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment,” according to the majority opinion in United States v. Windsor. “The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.”

The high court’s majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer.

The case was brought by Edith Windsor, now 83, who was forced to pay $363,053 in federal estate taxes after the death of her wife, Thea Spyer, in 2009 because she did not meet the definition of “spouse” under DOMA. In addition to invalidating DOMA, the court has ordered the Treasury Department to refund Windsor’s estate taxes plus interest.

Same-sex marriage advocates praised today’s ruling as an important step toward achieving equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals.

“We are incredibly gratified that today we have struck down an un-American, an unconstitutional law – the Defense of Marriage Act,” said Anthony Romero, National Director of the American Civil Liberties Union who represented Windsor. “This case will have ripple effects all across this country, that the equal protection standards that now the Supreme Court upheld this morning gives us an opportunity for fighting against laws that discriminate against LGBT individual in housing, in employment, in public accommodations…We truly stand at a tipping point today for winning the struggle for LGBT equality.”

Background on United States v. Windsor

Windsor and Spyer met in 1963. They registered as a domestic couple in New York in 1993 and were legally married in Ontario, Canada in 2007. Spyer left her entire estate to Windsor, her wife and partner of four decades.

But although their marriage was legally recognized by the state of New York, Windsor was denied spousal exemption on federal estate taxes because she did not meet the definition of a “spouse” under DOMA.

DOMA amended the federal definition of marriage to mean “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and spouse to mean “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.”

Since Windsor met neither of those definitions, she was obliged to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal estate taxes that opposite-sex married couples were exempt from having to pay.

In addition to estate taxes, DOMA’s definition of marriage and spouse were applied to more than 1,000 federal laws and regulations, which means that same-sex couples – even those whose marriages are legally recognized in their home states – are denied Social Security spousal benefits, federal government-subsidized housing, veterans’ benefits, and many other federal assistance granted to opposite-sex couples.

Windsor filed a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of DOMA and to receive her estate tax refund from the IRS.

Overview of Justice Kennedy’s opinion

Windsor’s case illustrated the contradictory treatment of married same-sex couples under New York state and federal law. On the one hand, Windsor and her wife, Spyer, are recognized as legally married and received equal treatment as their opposite-sex married counterparts under New York law. But because of DOMA, Windsor and Spyer are considered unmarried under federal law.

Justice Kennedy argued that DOMA was unconstitutional because it essentially “writes inequality into the entire United States Code” by treating legally married same-sex couples differently under federal law, in effect treating same-sex couples as “second tier” marriages.

“DOMA’s principal effect is to the identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like government efficiency,” wrote Kennedy, who pointed out that Congress back in 1996 intended DOMA to express “both moral disapproval on homosexuality, and moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with tradition (especially Judeo-Christian) morality.”

Kennedy wrote that the message sent to same-sex couples by DOMA is that their “otherwise valid marriages” are “unworthy of federal recognition.”

“The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects, and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify,” wrote Kennedy, who pointed out that the unequal treatment sanctioned by DOMA also “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples” because their parents are treated differently than opposite-sex couples.

“DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so, it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government,” wrote Kennedy. “The Constitution’s guarantee of equality ‘must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot’ justify disparate treatment of that group.”