By Jana Curry
Although the United States of America has become more liberal toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, LGBT persons in the United States still face legal challenges not experienced by heterosexual or “straight” people. Same sex marriage within the United States has been a subject of political, religious, legal and social debate for several years. Thirteen states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Maine, Maryland, Washington, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, and California), along with the District of Columbia, have legalized same- sex marriage.
In a country that promotes freedom of speech, denying LBGT people is seen as a violation of the constitution. Even though there are strong oppositions and laws against same-sex marriage, lesbian and gay couples should have the same rights and benefits as any heterosexual couples, especially due to the discrimination, hate crimes, and act against the LGBT community.
Both the federal and state legislatures have passed legislation to address whether LGBT persons have the legal right to marry. In 1996, the US Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). While the Act does not prohibit gay marriage, it means that LGBT marriages recognized in one state do not have to be recognized in another state. Further, under the legislation, the federal government recognizes marriage as between a man and a woman so that partners of LGBT federal employees who enter into civil unions do not receive federal benefits.
On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court made a ruling that would change the lives of LGBT couples and families forever. The U.S. Supreme Court, in two 5-4 rulings today, said married gay couples are eligible for federal benefits, and allowed gay marriage to resume in California by declining to decide a separate case.
That 5-4 decision, which did not address the merits of same-sex marriage, was written by Chief Justice John Roberts with Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan in the majority. Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor opposed.
The justices declared unconstitutional the 17-year-old federal law. The two cases concerned the constitutionality of a key part of the DOMA and a California state law enacted in 2008, called Proposition 8 that banned gay marriage.
The Supreme Court rulings come among rapid progress for advocates of gay marriage in recent months and years in the United States and internationally. Opinion polls show a steady increase in U.S. public support for gay marriage. Gay marriage is an issue that stirs cultural, religious and political passions in the United States as elsewhere. Gay marriage advocates celebrated outside the courthouse. An enormous cheer went up as word arrived that DOMA had been struck down. “DOMA is dead!” the crowd chanted, as couples hugged and cried.
President Barack Obama applauded the decision on DOMA and directed Attorney General Eric Holder to review all relevant federal laws to ensure the ruling is implemented. ”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,” Obama said. Obama got the news of the court’s decision as he flew aboard Air Force One to start a week-long trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
The court struck down the federal law as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law but ducked a ruling on Proposition 8 by finding that supporters of the law did not have standing to appeal a federal district court ruling that struck the law down.
While the ruling on DOMA was straightforward, questions remained about what exactly the Proposition 8 ruling will mean on the ground. There is likely to be more litigation over whether the district court ruling applies statewide. 36 states still ban same-sex marriage, and the high court’s ruling in the California case doesn’t extend marriage rights to gays and lesbians elsewhere. Those battles will continue in the states, the courts and eventually may reach the Supreme Court again.
Several factors were breaking in favor of gay marriage as the justices prepare to render their verdicts:
The public increasingly is on the side of same-sex marriage, perhaps easing some justices’ hesitance to get out in front of so many states. In the latest Pew Research Center survey, 72% of Americans called it “inevitable.”
Half a dozen states have legalized the practice since last fall: Maine, Maryland, Washington, Delaware, Rhode Island and Minnesota. Waiting in the wings are several others, from New Jersey to Hawaii.
The case on the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307, considered the part of the law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman for purposes of federal benefits. (A different part of the law, allowing states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, was not before the court.)
The case concerned two New York City women, Edith Windsor and Thea Clara Spyer, who married in 2007 in Canada. Ms. Spyer died in 2009, and Ms. Windsor inherited her property. The 1996 law did not allow the Internal Revenue Service to treat Ms. Windsor as a surviving spouse, and she faced a tax bill of about $360,000 that a spouse in an opposite-sex marriage would not have had to pay. Ms. Windsor sued, and last year the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, struck down the 1996 law.
Lastly, Attorney General Eric Holder announced in 2011 that the Obama administration considered DOMA unconstitutional and no longer would defend it in court.
The most prevalent and troubling issue that LGBT couples faced were tax laws. Despite their marriage certificates, gay and lesbian spouses could not 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 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 deduction.
As of today, all of that is behind the LGBT community. Lawfully married couples living in marriage equality states will soon have equal access to all the federal rights and benefits based on marital status. Today marks monumental victories for the LGBT community as they continue to fight for equality.