The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was enacted September 21, 1996; it was a federal law that restricted federal marriage benefits and required inter-state marriage recognition to only opposite-sex marriages in the United States. In particular, clause #3 defined marriage:
“In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”
This meant same-sex spouses in states where same-sex marriage was legal could not enjoy federal tax benefits conferred on married people. This meant federal military benefits could not be enjoyed by same-sex spouses. Social security, housing, food stamps, guardianship of children, insurance… all of these rights, as they pertain to married couples, were suspended for same-sex married couples.
In UNITED STATES v. WINDSOR, in which Windsor sued the government for withholding taxes on the estate of her partner, who had willed it to her, the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to overturn DOMA and uphold Windsor’s right to a surviving spouse tax exemption.
In its opinion, the Court noted, “DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition. This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage…though Congress has great authority to design laws to fit its own conception of sound national policy, it cannot deny the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment…The liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause contains within it the prohibition against denying to any person the equal protection of the laws… This requires the Court to hold, as it now does, that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.”
This does not mean that same-sex is legal throughout the country; most states still do not allow it, and the Court declined to take the next logical step and find that anti-same-sex laws at the State level also violate the 5th Amendment (which it had the opportunity to do in the Prop 8 case that was also decided upon today–more on that in the next article).
But it does mean that the Federal government is no longer denying rights granted same-sex married couples by the states, California now included. This is a huge victory for same-sex couples, and equality in general. Welcome to the 21st Century, America!