On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings expanding gay rights in America. The nation’s highest court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on Wednesday by a vote of 5 to 4. As a result of this landmark decision, same-sex married couples are now eligible for the same federal protections and responsibilities afforded to opposite-sex married couples – but only in states that recognize same-sex marriage. While a significant victory, it should be noted that the Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutional right to same-sex marriage, nor did the justices enact a law to overturn state laws currently banning same-sex marriage.
Currently, there are 13 U.S. states where same-sex marriage is legal: California (as of July 26th), Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C
The Supreme Court ruled on, United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307, considered the part of the DOMA law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman for purposes of federal benefits. The case concerns two New York City residents, Edith Windsor and Thea Clara Spyer, who married in Canada in 2007. When Ms. Spyer died in 2009, she left her estate to Ms. Windsor. However, DOMA barred the IRS from recognizing Ms. Windsor as a surviving spouse, so she was hit with an estate tax bill of nearly $360,000, which an opposite-sex surviving spouse would never have to pay. As the result of a suit by Ms. Windsor, a United States Court of Appeals in New York struck down the 1996 law. However, the law remained in effect. In 2011, the U.S. Justice Department filed an appeal to the Supreme Court for a final decision on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.
By declining to decide a case regarding California’s “Proposition 8” ban on same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court effectively allowed same-sex marriages there, based on the rulings of two lower courts in favor of same-sex marriage. This is significant because California is the most populous state in the nation, with 12% of the national population.
While the fight is not over, these rulings are monumental victories in the fight for equality and justice.