The U.S. Supreme Court’s voted 5-4 to strike down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. Swing voter Anthony Kennedy joined the liberal wing of the court –Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Dissenting were Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.. They also ruled that the plaintiffs in the case of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, did not have the legal standing to bring that lawsuit.
The decision is expected to have major consequences on health coverage for legally married same-sex partners of federal employees and members of the military, as well as on tax treatment for private health coverage (a 2007 report from left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress and the UCLA’s Williams Institute found that employees with partners pay over $1,000 more in taxes each year than their married peers). The caveat is that the ruling applies on to states where same-sex marriage is legal. New Yorkers will benefit; Pennsylvanians will not.
The ruling seems to confirm a sea change in gay rights in this century. Take American corporations which have been far more progressive than the courts on these issues. Hundreds of U.S. employers, both large and small, signed on to an amicus brief against DOMA in February, arguing that treating same-sex couples differently hurt recruiting efforts, as well as employer-employee relations. Nike, Apple and Starbucks were among the nearly 300 firms that joined in filing the brief. According to the Human Rights Coalition, a group that advocates for gay rights, 62 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer domestic partner health benefits.
DOMA barred the government from treating same-sex partners as married, raising the cost of healthcare for same-sex couples and denying them eligibility for federally guaranteed rights such as medical and family leave, and, in some cases, Medicare. In all, it denied more than 1,100 benefits to married gay and lesbian couples.
Thirteen states have or are in the process of legalizing gay marriage. They join thirteen countries around the world including Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, and Sweden.
“The principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the 5-4 decision. “This requires the Court to hold, as it now does, that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.” Kennedy’s 26-page opinion says Congress’ explicit purpose in passing DOMA was to expose same-sex couples in state-sanctioned marriages to “a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma,” which violated the Fifth Amendment guarantee of rights to life, liberty and property.
The law also harmed these children financially, Kennedy wrote, because health benefits provided to same-sex spouses were not entitled to the same federal tax-exemptions as those of heterosexual families’, creating unequal costs for same-sex households. The law also denied survivorship benefits for spouses and children through Social Security.