The Supreme Court knocked down a barrier to federal benefits for married gay couples Wednesday, lifting the spirits of thousands of Washington residents who’ve tied the knot since voters made same-sex marriage legal last year.
In a historic day for gay rights, justices erased a provision in federal law that has kept legally married same-sex couples from receiving tax, health and pension benefits. Then, in a second ruling, the nation’s highest court cleared the way for the resumption of same-sex marriage in California. Both decisions came out as 5-4 rulings.
In neither case did the court make a sweeping statement, either in favor of or against same-sex marriage.
And they did leave in place a provision of the federal law known as the Defense of Marriage Act that allows states to not recognize same-sex marriages consummated elsewhere. This could cause complications for couples who wed in Washington then return home to a state where such nuptials are banned.
The court’s decision means an estimated 1,138 federal laws in which marital status is a factor in determining or receiving benefits, rights and privileges will now apply to Washington couples.
“For no legitimate purpose, the federal government sought to treat lesbian and gay couples as less than other married couples,” said Anne Levinson, who lives in Seattle and is a retired judge and adviser on the 2012 campaign to preserve the state gay marriage law. “Now, if a state says a same-sex couple is married, the federal government can no longer tell that couple they are not married in the eyes of the federal government.”
Much will change in a short period of time for these couples.
They will be entitled to survivor and Social Security benefits when their spouse dies. Married veterans and active military couples will get the same federal benefits as other married heterosexual soldiers which will mean access to shared housing emergency notification if a spouse is injured or killed in action.
And couples in which one partner is from another country will no longer fear that spouse will be deported because the federal government doesn’t recognize their marriage.
“It is going to be a lot more equal treatment than we have had,” said Laura Jaurequi of Edmonds who married in February. She and her wife, Helen Lally, may save thousands of dollars in taxes and avoid hours of headaches.
For example, Lally’s is now covered under Jaurequi’s health insurance plan. The payment for the coverage is after taxes since the federal government does not recognize the marriage. With the decision, it will switch to pre-tax which should save them money.
Federal law barred Jaurequi from using her flexible spending account to cover Lally’s health care expenses. But that will change soon.
And then there are federal taxes. They will be able to file a joint return rather than married filed separately, which is more expensive.
“It has practical, real-life consequences for everyday people,” said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, one of a handful of gay state lawmakers. “It is a huge victory.”
In spite of the decisions, the Lynnwood man who led an unsuccessful campaign to repeal the state’s gay marriage law, said this battle is far from over. “The Supreme Court refused to declare a constitutional right to same-sex “marriage,” and rejected their request to impose a redefinition of marriage on all fifty states,” said Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington. “This decision means that this important debate will continue state by state across the country.”
Gay-rights supporters cheered and hugged outside the court. Opponents said they mourned the rulings and vowed to keep up their fight.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by the four liberal justices, said the purpose of the law was to impose a disadvantage and “a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states.”
President Barack Obama praised the court’s ruling against the federal marriage act, labeling the law “discrimination enshrined in law.”
“It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people,” Obama said in a statement. “The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he was disappointed in the outcome of the federal marriage case and hoped states continue to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Boehner, as speaker, had stepped in as the main defender of the law before the court after the Obama administration declined to defend it.
The other case, dealing with California’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, was resolved by an unusual lineup of justices in a technical legal fashion that said nothing about gay marriage. But the effect was to leave in place a trial court’s declaration that California’s Proposition 8 ban was unconstitutional. Gov. Jerry Brown quickly ordered that marriage licenses be issued to gay couples as soon as a federal appeals court lifts its hold on the lower court ruling. That will take least 25 days, the appeals court said.
California, where gay marriage was briefly legal in 2008, would be the 13th state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow same-sex couples to marry and would raise the share of the U.S. population in gay marriage states to 30 percent. Six states have adopted same-sex marriage in the past year, amid a rapid evolution in public opinion that now shows majority support for the right to marry in most polls.
The 12 other states are Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
The day’s rulings are clear for people who were married and live in states that allow same-sex marriage. They now are eligible for federal benefits.
The outcome of the cases had supporters of gay marriage already anticipating their next trip to the high court, which they reason will be needed to legalize same-sex unions in all 50 states.
The Human Rights Campaign’s president, Chad Griffin, said his goal is to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide within five years through a combination of ballot measures, court challenges and expansion of anti-discrimination laws.
The rulings came 10 years to the day after the court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision that struck down state bans on gay sex. In his dissent at the time, Justice Antonin Scalia predicted the ruling would lead to same-sex marriage.
On Wednesday, Scalia issued another pungent dissent in the Defense of Marriage Act case in which he made a new prediction that the ruling would be used to upend state restrictions on marriage. Kennedy’s majority opinion insisted the decision was limited to legally married same-sex couples.
Scalia read aloud in a packed courtroom that included the two couples who sued for the right to marry in California. On the bench, Justice Elena Kagan, who voted to strike down DOMA, watched Scalia impassively as he read.
“It takes real cheek for today’s majority to assure us, as it is going out the door, that a constitutional requirement to give formal recognition to same-sex marriage is not at issue here — when what has preceded that assurance is a lecture on how superior the majority’s moral judgment in favor of same-sex marriage is to the Congress’ hateful moral judgment against it. I promise you this: The only thing that will ‘confine’ the court’s holding is its sense of what it can get away with,” Scalia said.
Scalia and Justice Samuel Alito, who also wrote a dissenting opinion, said their view is that Constitution does not require states to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
Outside the court, some in the crowd hugged and others jumped up and down just after 10 a.m. when the DOMA decision was announced. Many people were on their cellphones monitoring Twitter, news sites and blogs for word of the decision. And there were cheers as runners came down the steps with the decision in hand and turned them over to reporters who quickly flipped through the decisions.
Chants of “Thank you” and “U-S-A” came from the crowd as plaintiffs in the cases descended the court’s marbled steps. Most of those in the crowd appeared to support gay marriage, although there was at least one man who held a sign promoting marriage as between a man and a woman.
In New York City’s Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn, where a riot in 1969 sparked the gay rights movement, erupted in cheers and whooping.
Mary Jo Kennedy, 58 was there with her wife Jo-Ann Shain, 60, and their daughter Aliya Shain, 25. She came with a sign that could be flipped either way and was holding up the side that says “SCOTUS made our family legal.”
They have been together 31 years and got married the day it became legal in New York.
Others were not celebrating.
“We mourn for America’s future, but we are not without hope,” said Tim Wildmon, president of American Family Association.
Said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council: “Time is not on the side of those seeking to create same-sex ‘marriage.’ As the American people are given time to experience the actual consequences of redefining marriage, the public debate and opposition to the redefinition of natural marriage will undoubtedly intensify.”
The federal marriage law had been struck down by several federal courts, and the justices chose to take up the case of 84-year-old Edith Windsor of New York, who sued to challenge a $363,000 federal estate tax bill after her partner of 44 years died in 2009.
Windsor, who goes by Edie, married Thea Spyer in 2007 after doctors told them Spyer would not live much longer. Spyer had suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years. She left everything she had to Windsor.
Windsor arrived at a news conference in New York after the ruling to applause from her supporters and said she felt “joyous, just joyous.”
Windsor would have paid nothing in inheritance taxes if she had been married to a man. Now she is eligible for a refund.
In the case involving the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Justice Kennedy was joined by the court’s four liberal justices. In the California ruling, which was not along ideological lines, Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion was joined by Scalia and three of those liberal court members: Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.