The U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday that it will take up two potential landmark gay rights cases, one testing California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage and the other examining the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). At issue is whether the measures unconstitutionally discriminate against gay and lesbian couples.
The action positions the high court at the center of a heated debate over same-sex marriage in America.
It comes roughly a month after voters in three states – Maryland, Washington, and Maine – agreed to authorize marriages without regard to sexual orientation. That brings to nine the number of states plus the District of Columbia that allow same-sex marriages in the US.
In contrast, 37 states have either passed constitutional amendments or enacted state statutes upholding the traditional definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
The appeals likely will be set for oral argument in March or April, with decisions by late June.
At issue in the California Prop. 8 case is whether the state-wide referendum in 2008 banning same-sex marriage violated the equal protection rights of gay and lesbian couples seeking to marry.
The appeal – by supporters of Prop. 8 – asks the justices to overturn decisions by a federal judge and a federal appeals court panel striking down the state-wide ballot initiative.
The ballot campaign was launched to reverse a 4-3 decision by the California Supreme Court earlier that year that the state’s constitution required recognition of same-sex marriages.
The referendum took that question directly to California voters. They decided 52 percent to 48 percent to overturn the court ruling and amend the state constitution to explicitly define marriage in California as a union of one man and one woman.
The appeals court panel ruled 2-to-1 that Prop. 8 was unconstitutional because it used a campaign of animosity against homosexuals to rescind a constitutional right that had already been granted. The ballot initiative violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, the appeals court said.
The appeal in the DOMA case, meanwhile, asks the high court to examine whether the 1996 statute is a form of unlawful discrimination against same-sex couples whose marriages were recognized as legal by their home states.
The measure received bipartisan support, passing 342 to 67 in the House of Representatives and 85 to 14 in the Senate, and was signed into law by then President Bill Clinton.
It determined that federal spousal benefits would be distributed based on Congress’s definition of marriage – one man and one woman. Prior to that, the federal government had followed each state’s determination of who was legally married.
The legislation was passed in reaction to a state court ruling in Hawaii that suggested it might recognize a right to same-sex marriage.
DOMA defines marriage for purposes of federal benefits as a union of one man and one woman. It means that under federal law heterosexual married couples are eligible to receive some 1,100 spousal benefits that are not available to same-sex married couples. These benefits include a waiver from the estate tax, collection of Social Security survivor benefits, filing a joint tax return, and inclusion in a federal employee health-care plan, among others.
Specifically, the court said it will decide the DOMA issue via a case involving an elderly woman in New York City who is challenging a decision by the government to deny her a spousal waiver from the federal estate tax.
Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer spent 42 years together in New York City. They first met in 1963 and got engaged to each other in 1967 – a time when there was no recognition of same-sex marriage.
Ten years later in 1977, Ms. Spyer was diagnosed with multiple scleroris, a condition that eventually left her a paraplegic requiring 24-hour care.
In 2007, when doctors concluded that Spyer did not have much longer to live, Windsor and Spyer traveled to Canada to fulfill a shared lifelong dream. They got married.
Two years later, when Spyer passed away, Windsor sought to settle the couple’s estate. New York State recognized the marriage as valid, but under DOMA the federal government did not.
That meant that Windsor would not be entitled to claim the standard marital exemption from the federal inheritance tax. Even though she and Spyer had dedicated their lives to each other and obtained a legal marriage recognized as valid by their home state, their marriage remained invalid in the eyes of the federal government.
Windsor was forced to pay a $363,000 assessment. Had Spyer been a man, that assessment would have been $0.
Windsor sued, claiming DOMA violated her right to equal protection. A federal judge and a federal appeals court panel both agreed, ruling that DOMA violates the constitutional mandate that the government treat all citizens equally and fairly.
Windsor’s DOMA case was selected among eight appeals challenging the federal marriage law. The court took no action on the other pending appeals.
The accepted cases are Hollingsworth v. Perry (12-144) and US v. Windsor (12-307).