A federal appeals court ruled today that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally discriminates against married same-sex couples.
The court found that government discrimination against lesbians and gays is unconstitutional and that the defenders of DOMA – Republicans in the U.S. House – offered no good reason for treating married same-sex couples differently from all other married couples.
The ruling comes in a case brought by Edith “Edie” Windsor, who sued the federal government for failing to recognize her marriage to Thea Spyer, after Spyer’s death in 2009. The two women, who were a couple for 44 years, were married in Canada in 2007, and were considered married in their home state of New York.
When Spyer died in 2009, she left all of her property to Windsor, including the apartment they shared. Because they were married, Spyer’s estate normally would have passed to her spouse without any estate tax at all. But because DOMA prevents recognition of the otherwise valid marriages of same-sex couples, Windsor had to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes.
Windsor, in a news release, said DOMA “violated the fundamental American principle of fairness that we all cherish. I know Thea would have been so proud to see how far we have come in our fight to be treated with dignity.”
In the lawsuit, she argued that DOMA violates the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution because it requires the government to treat same-sex couples who are legally married as strangers.
Her case was handled by law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“Yet again, a federal court has found that it is completely unfair to treat married same-sex couples as though they’re legal strangers,” said James Esseks of the ACLU in a news release. “Edie and Thea were there for each other in sickness and in health like any other married couple, and it’s unfair for the government to disregard both their marriage and the life they built together and treat them like second-class citizens.”
Windsor, a senior computer systems programmer, and Spyer, a clinical psychologist, met in the early 1960s, and lived together for more than four decades in Greenwich Village. Despite not being able to get legally married, they were engaged to each other in 1967. Spyer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and Windsor helped her through her long battle with the disease. They were finally legally married in May 2007.
“We are pleased that the federal circuit that represents three states that provide their gay and lesbian citizens with the right to marry affirmed the decision of the district court,” said Roberta Kaplan of Paul, Weiss. “Given her age and health, we are eager for Ms. Windsor to get a refund of the unconstitutional tax she was forced to pay as soon as possible.”
In another response to the ruling, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who opposed DOMA in a friend-of-the-court brief, said, "Today’s decision is a major step forward in the fight for equality. I am pleased that the court recognized that the federal Defense of Marriage Act lacks an adequate justification and violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution."
He continued, "As we argued in our brief in this case, the court examined the proposed justifications for the statute with special care, both because the statute burdens gay and lesbian married couples, and because it intrudes on the traditional role of states in defining marriage. The state of New York has long recognized out-of-state, same-sex marriages, and the enactment of the Marriage Equality Act further cements our state’s position on this critical civil rights issue."
Windsor has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case. The court has not yet decided whether to hear her case, or any of several other challenges to DOMA.
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