On Wednesday I told you about the upcoming SCOTUS case of Hollingsworth v Perry that challenges California’s Prop 8. However, this is not the only case dealing with same-sex marriage the Supreme Court will be hearing next week. SCOTUS will be hearing arguments in the case of United States v Windsor starting next Wednesday. Unlike Hollingsworth v Perry, which takes on the legality of bans on same-sex marriage, U.S. v Windsor challenges the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.
DOMA is a federal law that says that the federal government will only recognize opposite-sex marriages. People who are legally married to a same-sex partner are still considered “unmarried” when it comes to federal government benefits for opposite-sex marriages.
New York resident Edith Windsor married her wife Thea Spyder in Toronto back in 2007. In 2009, after over 40 years together, Thea died. Their marriage was recognized under New York state law. Before her death, Thea made Edith the sole beneficiary of her estate. Under IRS rules, married couples pay little to no taxes on inheritance from their deceased spouse. However, because DOMA means that the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages, Edith is treated as unmarried for tax purposes. Because of this, Edith owed the federal government over $300,000 in taxes when she inherited her late wife’s estate, money that would not be owed if her and Thea had been in an opposite-sex marriage.
According to SCOTUSblog, the Court will be ruling on whether the federal governments refusal to recognize same-sex marriages violates the 14th Amendment. The Obama Administration has come out on record as saying that they believe DOMA to be unconstitutional and will not defend it in court. Instead, the House Republicans decided that they were going to step up as the defendants in the case because of course they did.
The lower courts already ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional, but for now the case rests in the hands of the Supreme Court. If DOMA is struck down, it will not legalize same-sex marriage. What it will do is recognize same-sex marriages and unions as being equal to opposite-sex marriages.
This might seem overly technical, but for couples in same-sex marriages, they can miss out on lots of government benefits that opposite-sex couples enjoy. This particular case deals with tax benefits related to marriage, but there are also a ton of other kinds of federal laws related to marriage. In fact, a GAO report from 2004 list a grand total of 1138 federal laws that treat married and unmarried individuals differently. For example, even though DADT was repealed, same-sex spouses of military personnel and veterans are unable to get access to military bases, housing allowances or reimbursement for relocation expenses. Non-military federal employees cannot include their same-sex spouses in their healthcare, pension or disability benefits. Non-U.S. citizens who marry a U.S. citizen cannot get a family visa. Widows are unable to claim the social security benefits or copyright renewals of their deceased spouse. A person in a same-sex marriage cannot take advantage of services and benefits that go toward helping individuals in abusive marriages. These are just a sample of the many ways in which DOMA creates a discriminatory policy that treats same-sex couples as not just inferior, but non-existent.
Hopefully SCOTUS will do the right thing and strike down DOMA. Doing so would set the precedent that same-sex marriages are just as valid and, in fact, completely equal to opposite-sex marriages.
Images of 2011 Chicago Pride Parade by Jamie Bernstein