SCOTUS Ruling on DOMA Could Open Doors to Full Marriage Equality

Tags: Supreme Court, SCOTUS, Civil Rights, Gay Marriage, DOMA, Defense of Marriage Act, Marjorie McAtee

Marjorie McAtee by Marjorie McAtee

This week, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding two controversial anti-gay marriage laws – California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. The Supreme Court’s rulings on these laws could pave the way for full marriage equality throughout the country.

What is Proposition 8?

Proposition 8 is the California state constitutional amendment, passed on November 5, 2008, which banned same-sex marriages in the state. It came in the wake of a state Supreme Court decision that granted California same-sex couples equal marriage rights. With the passage of Proposition 8, those rights were repealed – although same sex marriages officiated before November 5, 2008 remained valid, as did the state’s same-sex domestic partnerships.

In August 2010, United States District Court Judge Vaughn Walker, ruling on the case Perry v. Schwarzenegger, overturned Proposition 8, on the grounds that it violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. In February 2012, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Walker’s decision, striking down California’s Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage.

What is DOMA?

The Defense of Marriage Act, known popularly as DOMA, is a law passed by Congress in 1996 and signed into effect by President Bill Clinton. Under it, states can refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. DOMA also withholds federal recognition of same-sex marriages, even in states where such marriages are legal. Under DOMA, same-sex spouses do not qualify for the federal benefits bestowed on opposite-sex married couples, including Social Security benefits, tax breaks and inheritance rights.

Today, the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding Section Three of DOMA, the part regarding federal recognition of legal same-sex marriages. President Obama has opposed DOMA since his 2006 run for Senate. The Obama Administration believes that Section Three of DOMA is unconstitutional, and has asked the Justice Department not to defend it. Attorneys hired by the House of Representatives are defending Section Three of DOMA in the United States Supreme Court.

SCOTUS Ruling on Proposition 8 Likely to Affect Only California

Proposition 8 is different from other anti-gay marriage laws in that it rescinds same-sex marriage rights that Californians previously enjoyed. Because the law takes away a pre-existing right, it’s likely that the Supreme Court will draw on precedent to rule it unconstitutional, upholding the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision. Such a ruling would likely not be extended to all 50 states; experts predict that it would apply only to California. There’s a chance, however, that the ruling could be applied to eight other states where same-sex domestic partnerships and civil unions are legal but same-sex marriage is not.

The Supreme Court’s DOMA Ruling Expected to Be Most Significant

The Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling on DOMA is expected to be far more expansive than any ruling on Proposition 8. A  repeal of DOMA won’t mean that same-sex marriage will be legal in states where it is not already recognized, but it will mean that same-sex spouses in states where marriage equality is already law will enjoy the federal recognition of their union that opposite-sex couples already have. Same-sex spouses in the District of Columbia and the nine states that allow gay marriage will gain access to federal tax breaks, immigration rights, military spousal benefits, Social Security benefits and all of the 1,100 federal benefits currently bestowed upon heterosexual married couples. Though it’s impossible to predict how the Supreme Court will rule on DOMA, advocates for marriage equality remain hopeful that its repeal is imminent.


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