WASHINGTON — 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 from 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 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 bars 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 50 states,” Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, said in a statement. “This decision means that this important debate will continue state by state across the country.”
In the case involving the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, joined by the court’s liberal justices.
“Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways,” Kennedy said.
“DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal,” he said.
Some in the crowd outside the court hugged and others jumped up and down just after 10 a.m. EDT Wednesday when the DOMA decision was announced. Many people were on their cell phones 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 “USA” 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.
Kennedy was joined in the DOMA decision by the court’s four liberal justices.
Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, and Scalia dissented.
Same-sex marriage has been adopted by 12 states and the District of Columbia. Another 18,000 couples were married in California during a brief period when same-sex unions were legal there.
The outcome is clear for people who were married and live in states that allow same-sex marriage. They now are eligible for federal benefits.
The picture is more complicated for same-sex couples who traveled to another state to get married, or who have moved from a gay marriage state since being wed.
Their eligibility depends on the benefits they are seeking. For instance, immigration law focuses on where people were married, not where they live. But eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits basically depends on where a couple is living when a spouse dies.
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, Scalia predicted the ruling would lead to same-sex marriage.
Massachusetts was the first state to allow gay couples to marry, in 2004. When same-sex unions resume in California, there will be 13 states representing 30 percent of the U.S. population where gay marriage is legal.
The other 11 are Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Outside the court, gay marriage proponents celebrated both wins.
May the marriages begin,” said the Human Rights Campaign’s Chad Griffin, who helped spearhead the lawsuit challenging Proposition 8. The two same-sex couples who sued for the right to marry also were at the court Wednesday.
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 day it became legal in New York.
The broadest possible ruling would have given gay Americans the same constitutional right to marry as heterosexuals. The justices said nothing on that topic in either case.
The decisions Wednesday have no effect on the roughly three dozen states that do not allow same-sex marriage, including 29 that have enshrined the bans in their constitutions.
The federal marriage law, known by its acronym DOMA, had been struck down by several federal courts.
The justices chose for their review 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. She suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years. Spyer left everything she had to Windsor.
Windsor would have paid nothing in inheritance taxes if she had been married to a man. And now she is eligible for a refund.