The end of DOMA: a breakdown


With the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) officially considered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States, the landscape of marriage is forever altered for America’s LGBT community.

The Ruling

Justice Anthony Kennedy, along with Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan approved the ban with a 5 to 4 vote.

“Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways,” said Justice Kennedy. “DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented on the vote.

Breaking it down

Unlike the Prop 8 rulings, with its five possible outcomes, DOMA could only have one of two results: define marriage as only between two people of the opposite sex, thus barring same-sex couples federal benefits, or simply recognize legally wed LGBT couples at the federal level.

The ruling puts in mind two cases arguably similar to DOMA: Lawrence and Romer. Both cases made it clear that Congress or any government body will not harm a minority or a disadvantaged group simply out of a desire to do harm.

Lawrence v. Texas was about the baseless criminalization of consensual acts between two adults, while Romer v. Evans considered whether banning the LGBT community from having protected status under the law was a legitimate, logical state interest.

Essentially, DOMA deprived all gay and lesbian couples of federal rights in the matrimonial institution, firmly reinforced the disadvantages, and created a “special status” that was unjustified.

The text

“By creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State, DOMA forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect. By this dynamic DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition,” the Court explained.

“This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage. The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects, and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.”

Perceiving that the constitution requires equality for all, Kennedy believes it was more about benefits, numbers and tax refunds. He also stressed it was about the importance of marriage.

What was gained?

With the lifting of the ban, there are now 1,138 federal benefits that married same-sex couples have access to. Legally wed LGBT couples can now file income tax returns, receive social security benefits and retirement benefits, receive dependent spouse employer-sponsored coverage and family leave, obtain green cards for immigrant spouses, file joint applications for subsidies for health coverage insurance, and receive federal estate and gift tax marital deductions.

Many LGBT couples will also have easier access to Obamacare benefits, and won’t pay more for allocating the same health plan.

Benefitting many, but not all

Unfortunately, the decision does not force states to implement marriage equality or order them to change their legislation. It also creates a problem for couples moving to a state that does not allow marriage equality, as the IRS determines benefits by where a couple lives and not where the marriage was performed.

This is particularly difficult for military officials and their spouses as they change stations.

More questionable is the states that only allow civil unions for same-sex couples; their recognition is still not equal, thus barring them from over 1,000 federal benefits. States like Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey do not have marriage equality but instead offer legally recognized civil unions, which still fall short of the benefits and protections of marriage.

“We worked long and hard at a bill out there for civil unions [and]I think we need to let that work through the system,” said Illinois State Rep. Sue Scherer, in an interview with the Journal-Register.

The Supreme Court withheld the final decisions for the last day, which fell two days before the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Considered the dawn of the modern-day LGBT movement, the riots took place in New York after gay bar patrons refused to put up with then-routine police abuse in a bar located in Greenwich Village.


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