By Bill Mears
WASHINGTON — In a dramatic slap at federal authority, a divided Supreme Court Wednesday struck down a key part of congressional law that denies to legally married same-sex couples the same benefits provided to heterosexual spouses.
The Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.
The vote Wednesday was 5-4.
“Although Congress has great authority to design laws to fit its own conception of sound national policy, it cannot deny the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said.
The case examined whether the federal government can deny tax, health and pension benefits to same-sex couples in states where they can legally marry. At issue was whether DOMA violates equal protection guarantees in the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause as applied to same-sex couples legally married under the laws of their states.
The key plaintiff is Edith “Edie” Windsor, 84, who married fellow New York resident Thea Spyer in Canada in 2007, about 40 years into their relationship. By the time Spyer died in 2009, New York courts recognized same-sex marriages performed in other countries. But the federal government didn’t recognize Windsor’s
same-sex marriage, and she was forced to assume an estate tax bill much larger than those that other married couples would have to pay. So, Windsor sued the federal government.
A federal appeals court last year ruled in Windsor’s favor, saying DOMA violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause.
“Today’s DOMA ruling is a historic step forward for #MarriageEquality. #LoveIsLove,” President Barack Obama’s official Twitter account posted soon after the decision was handed down.
Kennedy in his opinion used sweeping language to affirm the rights of gays and lesbians.
“For same-sex couples who wished to be married, the state [of New York] acted to give their lawful conduct a lawful status. This status is a far-reaching legal acknowledgment of the intimate relationship between two people, a relationship deemed by the state worthy of dignity in the community equal with all other marriages,” he said. “DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect.”
But Kennedy — a moderate-conservative who proved once again to be the “swing,” or deciding, vote —made clear the ruling is limited: “This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.” Thirty-five states have laws banning same-sex marriage.
Under DOMA, Social Security, pension and bankruptcy benefits, along with family medical leave protections and other federal provisions, did not apply to gay and lesbian couples legally married in states that recognize such unions.
In a thunderous dissent, read from the bench, Justice Antonin Scalia slammed the majority for its “exalted conception of the role of this institution” — the Supreme Court — “in America.”