Cheers went up across the country Wednesday as the LGBT community and its supporters celebrated the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to strike down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
The high court’s decision is a step in the right direction, but we plan to refrain from celebrating until it is clear what status Texas LGBT couples will be afforded. Doubts remain about whether the newly extended benefits would reach married same-sex couples living in states like ours, which don't recognize same-sex marriage.
Kyle Jerro, vice director of UT’s Queer Students Alliance, applauds the court’s decision but sees many obstacles ahead for the LGBT community.
“The defeat of DOMA is a monumental step in the right direction,” Jerro said, “but this victory cannot be our last. Most states still refuse to offer marriage equality, too many states fail to protect LGBT people from acts of hateful violence and discrimination and the rates of suicide and homelessness among LGBT youth are shockingly too high.”
In the case, United States v. Windsor, widow Edith Windsor sued the Internal Revenue Service for a refund of $363,053 in estate taxes after her wife, as recognized by the state of New York, died. She argued that DOMA’s Section 3 violated the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. Section 3 defined “marriage,” as it is used in more than 1,000 federal laws, as the union of one man and one woman.
This restrictive definition, signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1996, disqualified legally married LGBT couples for federal benefits. At the time of the bill’s enactment, no state granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples, rendering the problem more symbolic than practical.
However, when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts cleared the way for same-sex marriage in that state in 2003 and New York later began to recognize same-sex marriages performed outside the state, a conflict emerged between the states and the federal government.
In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, seizes on this discrepancy between state and federal law as the Achilles’ heel of the legislation. The opinion states, “DOMA rejects this long-established precept. [New York]’s decision to give this class of persons the right to marry conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import. But the Federal Government uses the state-defined class for the opposite purpose … New York’s actions were a proper exercise of its sovereign authority. They reflect both the community’s considered perspective on the historical roots of the institution of marriage and its evolving understanding of the meaning of equality.”
Later in the opinion, Kennedy strikes at the more insidious root cause of the legislation: “DOMA’s avowed purpose and practical effect are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.” It is precisely this stigma that gay rights activists have been trying to erase since the ‘60s. While the ruling doesn’t make it clear how a couple’s marital status will be determined (Will it be based on where they got married or where they are currently living?), we believe there is no reason a legally married same-sex couple should be denied the rights of a married straight couple. It simply flies in the face of the values of fairness and equality enshrined in our Constitution and our national psyche. To ensure that LGBT couples married in other states receive the new benefits, Texas should formally recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
In a statement to the Texan on Wednesday, Chuck Smith, the executive director of Equality Texas, a gay and lesbian lobbying organization, said, “[The decision] means [same-sex couples] can now file a joint tax return, it means they're eligible for Social Security benefits and any of the things that are covered by federal law.” However, as The New York Times reports, “Some agencies look to the laws in the state in which a couple now live, for instance, while others look to those in the state in which the couple were married.” Ideally, all 1,000-plus benefits would be extended to same-sex couples across the country, but this may not happen, at least not for a while. So while we celebrate this important victory, we must also remember that the fight for equality isn’t over yet.