Supreme Court Rules DOMA Unconstitutional

The Supreme Court today finally issued its decision on one of the most landmark gay rights cases of the century. By a vote of 5-4, the Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional.

United States v. Windsor, the case brought by 84-year-old Edie Windsor, challenged DOMA on the premise that the law did not offer equal protection to people in same-sex marriages. After the death of her partner of 42 years, Thea Spyer, whom she married legally in Canada in 2007, Windsor was hit with more than $360,000 in inheritance taxes because the United States did not recognize their marriage, a burden she would not have faced had she married a man.

The Court ruled that DOMA is “unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.” Here’s the full opinion (PDF). According to the SCOTUS liveblog of the opinions:

“DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty…In determining whether a law is motivated by improper animus or purpose, discriminations of an unusual character especially require careful consideration. DOMA cannot survive under these principles.

The decision also seems to hint that DOMA was created for little other reason than to deliberately discriminate against same-sex couples and uses “careful consideration” to conclude that this reasoning isn’t valid or just:

“In determining whether a law is motivated by improper animus or purpose, discriminations of an unusual character especially require careful consideration. DOMA cannot survive under these principles.”

Hundreds of journalists, activists and political analysts have speculated for months about this ruling and the upcoming Prop 8 ruling. While their predictions may have differed in the details, all agree that the people propelling these cases are just as important to the gay rights movement as the decisions themselves. Take this article from the New Yorker‘s Richard Socarides, published Monday:

Both of these cases involve real people. The four plaintiffs in the California Prop 8 case — Kris Perry, Sandy Stier, Paul Katami, and Jeff Zarrillo — each had to testify at a trial and did so compellingly, sharing with the public the intimacies of their relationships and why marriage mattered so much to each of them. And then there is the gay-rights movement’s new outsized hero and champion, the plaintiff Edith Windsor, an eighty-three-year-old lesbian widower who is a distinctly sympathetic figure. Because of DOMA, she had to pay hundreds of thousand of dollars in estate taxes after the death of her wife, with whom she had lived for decades, and who she cared for as multiple sclerosis confined her to a wheelchair and took her life.

The easily recognizable Windsor is often stopped on the street in her Greenwich Village neighborhood and thanked profusely by strangers. When she is introduced at events now, she receives a standing ovation, often without uttering a single word. Since the beginning of her case, as she has gone from anonymous senior citizen to high profile Supreme Court plaintiff, she has conducted herself with such authenticity and dignity and in such a compelling manner that she will undoubtedly be the human face of the gay-rights movement — perhaps its own Rosa Parks — for a long time to come.

Indeed, this is a historic day for LGBT people all over the country and all over the world. While marriage equality is certainly not the be-all and end-all of the gay rights movement, the abolition of DOMA signals an unmistakable shift in how the United States views and treats its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. Not only will same-sex couples finally have access to the 1,138 federal rights, benefits and privileges they are denied on the basis of sexual orientation, but they will also undoubtedly experience firsthand the result of changing attitudes about LGBT equality. Public support for marriage equality is at an all-time high, and while this ruling may bring out some naysayers, it is certain we’ll see more and more LGBT people and their allies coming forward to voice their support. This change may come slowly, as all major social change does, but it will happen nonetheless. It’s already started.

About Camille Beredjick

Camille is a twentysomething working in the LGBT nonprofit industry. She runs an LGBT news blog at gaywrites.org.


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