On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act. The ruling allows the federal government to recognise same-sex marriage, granting gay couples equal status for immigration, taxation, and federal benefits. But the ruling conferred much more than these measurable benefits. It also acknowledged “the equal dignity of same-sex marriage”, creating a broad precedent for the defence of marriage equality in the future.
Much has changed since Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law in 1996. At the time, no state allowed same-sex marriage – none would until 2003. The law was thus a pre-emptive strike, barring the federal government from recognising same-sex marriages when states eventually granted them.
And grant them they did. In the 17 years since DOMA’s passage, 13 states and the District of Columbia have guaranteed same-sex couples full marriage rights. Today almost a third of Americans live in areas that allow gay marriage. Yet because of DOMA, the more than 70,000 couples married under these laws have been denied recognition by the federal government.
As marriage equality spread in the United States, the inequalities created by DOMA became increasingly visible. Edith Windsor, the New York octogenarian at the center of the DOMA ruling, highlighted the high price of unequal treatment. In 2009 Thea Spyer, Windsor’s partner of 40 years and wife of two, died and left Windsor her estate. Federal law exempts spouses from paying estate taxes. But since the federal government did not recognise her marriage, Windsor was stuck with a tax bill totaling US$363,503.
That tax bill represented clear, measurable injury, the sort of injury courts are well-adept at grappling with. The federal government refused to acknowledge her marriage, and as a result, Edith Windsor was nearly $400,000 poorer.
The story of Windsor and Spyer was about far more than taxes, however. Their partnership began in 1963, four years before the Supreme Court declared bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional. The night they met, Spyer later recalled, “We danced so much and so intensely that [Edie] danced a hole through her stockings.” In 1967 they were engaged, and four decades later, they married in Toronto, Canada. Windsor retired from IBM in the early 1970s to care for Spyer, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Far more than the hefty tax bill, this story of a life shared together provided the context for Justice Anthony Kennedy’s rejection of DOMA on the grounds that it sought “to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.” Personhood and dignity: this was a case more about worth than wealth.
The laws of our land are catching up to the fundamental truth that millions of Americans hold in our hearts: when all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free.
Momentous as the decision in United States v Windsor may be, this week’s ruling did not signal the end of DOMA, nor to the struggle for marriage equality in the United States. Section three, the part of DOMA that restricted the federal government’s recognition of same-sex marriage, was struck down. Section two, which allows states to disregard marriages granted to same-sex couples by other states, still stands. It is this part of the law that ensures the inequities and contradictions of marriage law in America will persist.
Because of this week’s ruling, a gay couple married in Massachusetts will be considered married in the eyes of the federal government. But what if that couple moves to Ohio, a state that does not recognise same-sex marriage? They are considered unwed in Ohio. Will the federal government then stop their benefits? If a gay soldier stationed in New York marries and is then transferred to Virginia, will her wife still receive spousal benefits from the military?
Thorny issues like these are why the United States Constitution has a full faith and credit clause, requiring states to respect the contracts and proceedings of other states. The remaining fragments of DOMA exempt states from granting full faith and credit in the case of same-sex marriages, destabilising the country’s legal and social systems in unacceptable ways.
The court has decided it is too soon to tackle the rest of DOMA. Doing so would almost certainly result in the end of same-sex marriage bans across the United States. The court, as well as many marriage equality advocates, is not sure the country is ready for such sweeping change. But despite the lingering inequalities, Wednesday’s ruling demonstrates that when the court does finally rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, it will do so in support of equal rights and individual dignity.