The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that the government’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages amounted to a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
The Act, known colloquially as DOMA, was enacted in 1996 as the gay marriage battle was heating up across the country. The legislation, which easily passed both houses of Congress, provided that states that did not allow same-sex marriage did not have to recognize gay marriages performed legally in other states. Under DOMA, for instance, Texas can refuse to recognize a gay marriage legally performed in New York.
Section 3 of DOMA specified that the federal government did not recognize same-sex marriages, and that therefore same-sex couples were ineligible for federal marital benefits. As a result, same-sex couples were unable to obtain marital insurance benefits, survivor’s benefits for Social Security, and could not file joint tax returns.
It was this section of the Act that the Court said failed for want of equal protection.
The vote was 5-4, with liberal justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer joining perennial swing vote Anthony Kennedy in voting to strike down the provision.
The majority opinion, written by Kennedy, stressed that “[b]y seeking to … treat[ gay couples] as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
“The class to which DOMA directs its restrictions and restraints are those persons who are joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the State,” the majority wrote. “DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty. It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper … The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”
The majority also stressed that “[t]he avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question 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."
Dissent by Scalia
A typically feisty Justice Antonin Scalia penned a dissent that was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined in part by Chief Justice John Roberts. Scalia, who is known for the occasional sharp jab at colleagues on the other side of an opinion, lamented that the Court -- in his opinion -- was unable to find common ground, or at least reach a cordial disagreement.
“In the majority's telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us,” Scalia wrote. “The truth is more complicated. It is hard to admit that one's political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today's Court can handle. Too bad.”
The ruling is just the latest step toward equality for same-sex couples. In September 2011, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the law prohibiting gay members of the military from publicly divulging their sexual orientation, was repealed. And the latest polls show that around 55% of Americans support legalizing gay marriage.