This piece is the seventh in a series of guest blog posts on “Why It’s Time to Dump DOMA.” In the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court arguments on the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, we’re asking friends of PFAW to share why dumping DOMA matters to them. Be sure to check back soon for the latest post in the series.
Nine years ago, as I was preparing to leave Ohio University, I said goodbye to Adam, one of my best friends. I remember writing to him in a card that I hoped our husbands would someday get to meet. That November – November 3, 2004 to be precise – I was on the phone with him, and he was heartbroken at what for many was a difficult election (including Ohio passing a state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to the union of one man and one woman).
Fast forward to 2011, and a visit with Adam and his partner of several years, Michael. Marriage equality came up in conversation. It seemed to us to be possible but still five or ten years away.
Then came 2012. In May, President Obama affirmed his support for the freedom to marry of same-sex couples. In December, the Supreme Court agreed to hear cases challenging California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
With oral arguments looming at the end of the month, Adam’s reaction to the President’s announcement rings ever more true:
THANK YOU President Obama! Those of you who know Michael and I: we have such an incredibly strong, stable, loving relationship. Opening our relationship up to marriage does nothing but STRENGTHEN the institution!
That’s exactly why we should dump DOMA.
Yes, dumping DOMA is just one step on the long road to marriage equality. But it’s an important step, and one that’s many years overdue. DOMA unconstitutionally defines marriage for all federal purpose as the union of one man and one woman. That means that legally married couples in nine states and the District of Columbia are denied the more than one thousand rights and benefits that the federal government ties to marriage. That means that these couples and families aren’t afforded the safety and security that comes along with many of those rights. That means that they are discriminated against based solely on their sexual orientation.
That means that if Adam and Michael were to legally marry, despite progress made under the Obama administration, the federal government – bound by the discrimination enshrined in law – would have no choice but to turn its back on them in most cases.
That is not right. Dump DOMA.
Jen Herrick, Senior Policy Analyst
People For the American Way
A conservative George H. W. Bush nominee on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals authored a strong decision today declaring section 3 of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Earlier this year, a federal district court judge in Connecticut, that one a Bush-43 nominee, also declared the law unconstitutional. So did a unanimous panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case before the 2nd Circuit was that of Edith Windsor, an octogenarian in New York who lost her wife in 2009; they had been together for forty years. The New York Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Windsor, described her case in a press release this summer:
Windsor and Spyer lived together for more than four decades in Greenwich Village. Despite not being able to marry legally, they were engaged in 1967. In 1977, Spyer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and Windsor helped her through her long battle with that disease. They were finally legally married in May 2007.
When Spyer died in 2009, she left all of her property to Windsor. Because they were married, Spyer's estate normally would have passed to Edie as her spouse without any estate tax at all. But because of DOMA, Windsor had to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes. Payment of the federal estate tax by a surviving spouse is one of the most significant adverse impacts of DOMA since the amount owed, as was true in this case, is often quite substantial.
"Edie Windsor, who recently celebrated her 83rd birthday, suffers from a serious heart condition," said Roberta Kaplan, a partner at Paul Weiss and counsel to Windsor. "Because the District Court's ruling in her favor is entitled to an automatic stay of enforcement, Edie cannot yet receive a refund of the unconstitutional estate tax that she was forced to pay simply for being gay. The constitutional injury inflicted on Edie should be remedied within her lifetime."
The 2nd Circuit opinion leaves no ambiguity as to the discriminatory harm done by section 3 of DOMA. Ian Millhiser at Think Progress pulls out this paragraph of the decision:
[W]e conclude that review of Section 3 of DOMA requires heightened scrutiny. The Supreme Court uses certain factors to decide whether a new classification qualifies as a quasi-suspect class. They include: A) whether the class has been historically “subjected to discrimination,”; B) whether the class has a defining characteristic that “frequently bears [a] relation to ability to perform or contribute to society,” C) whether the class exhibits “obvious, immutable, or distinguishing characteristics that define them as a discrete group;” and D) whether the class is “a minority or politically powerless.” Immutability and lack of political power are not strictly necessary factors to identify a suspect class. Nevertheless, immutability and political power are indicative, and we consider them here. In this case, all four factors justify heightened scrutiny: A) homosexuals as a group have historically endured persecution and discrimination; B) homosexuality has no relation to aptitude or ability to contribute to society; C) homosexuals are a discernible group with non-obvious distinguishing characteristics, especially in the subset of those who enter same-sex marriages; and D) the class remains a politically weakened minority.
That’s an unambiguous indictment of DOMA and of all laws that discriminate against gays and lesbians. Nevertheless, House Speaker John Boehner, who has now spent $1.5 million taxpayer dollars in an attempt to defend DOMA, is likely to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. But the easier option, as PFAW president Michael Keegan points out in a statement today, would be for Congress just to repeal DOMA. It’s done enough harm to millions of people like Edie Windsor, and its effects will become clearer as more and more gay and lesbian couples are allowed to marry, and find that their marriages aren’t recognized by the federal government.
The ballot initiative that revoked marriage equality in California has taken a big step towards having its constitutionality determined by America’s highest court. In a long-awaited move, proponents of Prop 8 have petitioned the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Hollingsworth .v Perry that the ballot initiative violated the federal Equal Protection Clause. A nearly 500 page document, which can found here, lays out their rationale for urging the court to review the case.
Prop 8 Trial Tracker broke down the core of their argument:
The question presented in the case is: “Whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the State of California from defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” The proponents tell the Court that they should answer the “profoundly important question whether the ancient and vital institution of marriage should be fundamentally redefined to include same-sex couples.” They write that leaving the Ninth Circuit’s decision intact would have “widespread and immediate negative consequences” and would leave the impression that any “experiment” with marriage would be “irrevocable”.
The Ninth Circuit issued a very narrow ruling, avoiding the question of whether gay and lesbian couples in general have a constitutional right to marry. Instead, it based its ruling on narrow grounds unique to California, where same-sex couples were left with all the state rights of marriage but not the name. It found that taking their designation of “marriage” while leaving their rights unchanged did not serve any of the purposes put forth by its defenders. Instead, its only purpose and effect was to lessen a targeted group’s status and dignity by reclassifying their relationship and families as inferior. While the Supreme Court will be presented with the narrower question as framed by the Ninth Circuit, it is impossible to tell, if it agrees to hear the case at all, whether they will rule on this principle or more broadly on the ability of states to deny lesbians and gays the right to marry.
The Supreme Court will likely decide in early October whether or not to hear the case. Back in February, PFAW applauded the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in upholding the decision of the district court striking down Prop 8.
Marriage equality is just one of the many critical issues that will come before the Supreme Court when they reconvene next session. The elevation of Prop 8 to the highest level of the judicial system underscores the increasing importance of the Supreme Court and the Presidential election.
It is a difficult to imagine a more conservative Court than the one we have now, but Mitt Romney has pledged to appoint justices even further to the right then John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Romney has also enlisted far-right judge Robert Bork to advise him on judicial matters.
Visit RomneyCourt.com for more on Mitt Romney’s extreme vision for the Supreme Court.
A federal appeals court in Boston today upheld a lower court ruling that called the key section of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” unconstitutional. Section 3 of DOMA bans the federal government from recognizing legal marriages between people of the same sex, meaning that it willfully discriminates against a set of married people when it comes to Social Security benefits, joint-filing tax breaks, military spousal benefits and immigration. When DOMA was passed in 1996 no states allowed gay and lesbian couple to marry – its provisions were purely theoretical. Today, marriage equality exists in six states and the District of Columbia, and DOMA actively harms thousands of married Americans – 100,000 couples, according to the court.
In its decision concluding that DOMA violates the Constitution, the unanimous First Circuit panel – two out of three of whom were nominated by Republican presidents – was cautious. The panel said that under First Circuit precedent DOMA doesn’t trigger “heightened scrutiny” – a tougher standard for the federal government to meet. It also declined to address any arguments based on the premise that lesbians and gays have a constitutional right to marry (as opposed to having their existing marriages recognized by the federal government).
But the court was clear that Section 3 of DOMA does not meet the “rational basis” test for upholding a federal law that denies equal protection to a group long subject to discrimination – in other words, there’s just no good reason for DOMA to do the harm that it does.
The court looked at several justificiations offered for the law by DOMA’s supporters and found that each comes up short. Supporters say DOMA will save the federal government money (reports say that it actually costs the government money…and saving money isn’t a good enough reason for legal discrimination in the first place); that allowing lesbians and gays to marry harms children (it doesn’t, and Section 3 of DOMA doesn’t affect these couples’ rights to raise children anyway); and just plain moral disapproval (Supreme Court precedent says this isn’t enough of a reason). And finally, the court takes on the constant argument of opponents of same-sex marriage: that somehow gay couples getting married will harm the institution of marriage for everyone else:
Although the House Report is filled with encomia to heterosexual marriage, DOMA does not increase benefits to opposite-sex couples--whose marriages may in any event be childless, unstable or both--or explain how denying benefits to same-sex couples will reinforce heterosexual marriage. Certainly, the denial will not affect the gender choices of those seeking marriage. This is not merely a matter of poor fit of remedy to perceived problem, but a lack of any demonstrated connection between DOMA's treatment of same-sex couples and its asserted goal of strengthening the bonds and benefits to society of heterosexual marriage.
This is the crux of any number of court decisions that have struck down barriers to marriage equality. The main reason given for many laws that seek to deny marriage rights to gays and lesbians is that same-sex marriage will somehow weaken marriage for everybody else. It’s a claim that just doesn’t hold water.
The First Circuit panel did, however, go out of its way to defend DOMA’s supporters even while rejecting the law.
The District Court judge whose ruling the appeals court upheld declared that DOMA was motivated by “irrational prejudice” toward gays and lesbians. The First Circuit explicitly refuses to go there, instead stating that while that may have been true for some supporters, others were motivated instead by what it characterizes as the non-biased wish to “preserve the heritage of marriage as traditionally defined over centuries of Western civilization.” Under recent Supreme Court precedent, they write, the wish to uphold tradition isn’t a good enough one for denying equal protection. But the Supreme Court can change that if it wants:
In reaching our judgment, we do not rely upon the charge that DOMA's hidden but dominant purpose was hostility to homosexuality. The many legislators who supported DOMA acted from a variety of motives, one central and expressed aim being to preserve the heritage of marriage as traditionally defined over centuries of Western civilization. Preserving this institution is not the same as "mere moral disapproval of an excluded group," and that is singularly so in this case given the range of bipartisan support for the statute.
The opponents of section 3 point to selected comments from a few individual legislators; but the motives of a small group cannot taint a statute supported by large majorities in both Houses and signed by President Clinton. Traditions are the glue that holds society together, and many of our own traditions rest largely on belief and familiarity--not on benefits firmly provable in court. The desire to retain them is strong and can be honestly held. For 150 years, this desire to maintain tradition would alone have been justification enough for almost any statute. This judicial deference has a distinguished lineage, including such figures as Justice Holmes, the second Justice Harlan, and Judges Learned Hand and Henry Friendly. But Supreme Court decisions in the last fifty years call for closer scrutiny of government action touching upon minority group interests and of federal action in areas of traditional state concern.
Recognizing that the Supreme Court will likely review its reasoning, the court stayed the decision, so it will not go into effect yet.