Gay rights advocate Vin Testa waves a rainbow flag in front of the Supreme Court at sun up in Washington, Wednesday, June 26, 2013.
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- A divided Supreme Court gave a major boost to gay and
lesbian rights on Wednesday, striking down a key section of a federal
law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
justices declared unconstitutional part of the 17-year-old Defense of
Marriage Act, a law that has denied federal benefits to married gays and
lesbians in a dozen states, from Maine to Washington, and the District
READ: The Supreme Courts ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act (PDF)
The decision gives the high court's blessing, at
least in part, to a gay-marriage movement that has gained momentum in
the past decade and now stands on the threshold of full equality. The
ruling represents a major step forward for marriage equality and a
setback for defenders of traditional marriage between only men and
women. But 36 states still ban same-sex marriage, and the high court's
ruling doesn't affect them.
See Also: Supreme Court allows same-sex marriage in California
In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said the
federal law unconstitutionally denied equal treatment to gay and lesbian
couples. "DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State
entitled of recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty,"
"The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate
purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure
those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in
personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and
treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than
others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment,"
But Kennedy was careful to say that the court's
conclusion about the Defense of Marriage Act was "confined to those
lawful marriages" performed in states that already recognize same-sex
Kennedy was joined by the court's four more liberal justices. The court's conservative justices dissented.
Antonin Scalia, in a scathing dissent, said the court's decision was
"jaw-dropping," and predicted that it could help clear the path for
same-sex marriage nationwide. "By formally declaring anyone opposed to
same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well
every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional
definition," he wrote.
The decision was greeted with celebration
among gay rights advocates and dread by religious and social
conservatives. It also created an instant celebrity in 83-year-old Edie
Windsor, the lesbian widow who challenged the law based on a six-figure
estate tax bill that a heterosexual spouse would not have received.
Defense of Marriage Act has two main sections, only one of which -
defining marriage in federal laws as between a man and a woman - was
contested. Because of it, benefits and programs enjoyed by opposite-sex
couples aren't available to gays and lesbians under federal employment,
health, tax and other laws. The other provision shields states from
having to recognize gay marriages from other states.
General Eric Holder announced in 2011 that the Obama administration
considered DOMA unconstitutional and no longer would defend it in court.
Into the breach stepped House Republicans, who argued - to no avail in
lower courts - that the law saves needed federal resources and ensures
they are distributed equally among the states.
At last count,
there were more than 1,100 provisions in federal laws that listed
marital status as a factor in determining benefits, rights and
privileges. The list, prepared by the Government Accountability Office,
was most recently updated in 2003.
The most prevalent are tax
laws. Despite their marriage certificates, gay and lesbian spouses
cannot get tax-free health benefits from their employers. That alone
costs them about $1,000 a year on average, says Gary Gates, a
demographer who studies gay and lesbian trends at the UCLA School of
Law's Williams Institute.
Gays and lesbians can't file joint
federal tax returns, as heterosexual married couples can, which often
saves families thousands of dollars. If gays or lesbians divorce, any
alimony is considered a gift subject to taxation, while for opposite-sex
couples, it's tax-free. And when a spouse dies, the widow or widower is
liable for inheritance taxes; heterosexual couples enjoy a marital
That estate tax problem is what prompted Windsor to
file her lawsuit. She stands to win back the $363,000 she paid in 2009
on the estate of her deceased spouse, Thea Spyer - a tax she would not
have owed if their marriage was recognized by the federal government.
few dozen other same-sex married couples, widows and widowers also
stand to gain because they had filed legal challenges or tax claims that
have not expired, says Mary Bonauto, civil rights project director at
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. For all other same-sex
married couples, the impact of the court's ruling would be prospective,