Editorial: A victory for gay rights


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The Supreme Court of the United States made a pair of historic decisions on Wednesday that together represent a significant victory and advancement for the gay rights movement.

In a 5-4 ruling in United States v. Windsor, the court struck down a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, that denied legally married same-sex couples federal benefits such as Social Security benefits or the ability to file joint tax returns.

Section 3 of DOMA — which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman in all federal laws — was ruled a violation of equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The case was brought by 83-year-old Edie Windsor of New York who married Thea Spyer in 2007 after spending over 40 years together as a couple. When Spyer died in 2009, she left Windsor her estate. However, Windsor was denied — because of DOMA — an exemption on federal estate taxes and paid $363,053 to the IRS on her partner’s estate.

After years of having her case argued in appellate and district courts, Windsor successfully sued the US government for not recognizing her marriage to her late partner under DOMA.

The impact of U.S. v. Windsor is momentous. DOMA affects more than 1,100 federal laws, including veterans’ benefits, family medical leaves, and tax laws. By striking down Section 3 of DOMA, the Supreme Court has extended countless benefits and rights to the approximated 130,000 married same-sex couples in the United States who were until now treated as second-class citizens under federal law.

The ruling, in effect, put to rest the remaining legal arguments against gay marriage.

At the same time, justices also ruled 5-4 that the defendants in the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry, which challenged the constitutionality of Proposition 8 (California’s voter-approved same-sex marriage ban), have no standing in court.

Hollingsworth v. Perry was brought to the Supreme Court by supporters of Proposition 8 after a federal district court ruling struck it down. By ducking a decision on Proposition 8, the Supreme Court leaves standing the district court’s ruling that the ban is unconstitutional — same-sex marriage is legal once again in California.

Before the court’s ruling on Proposition 8, 12 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia recognized gay marriage. Three of those dozen states — Delaware, Minnesota, and Rhode Island — legalized gay marriage just this year. California is the 13th state to allow it, and today, around one third of the total United States population is now living in areas where same-sex marriage has been legalized.

But the court Wednesday fell short of striking down same-sex marriage bans nationwide. And so, 35 other states are left with Constitutional amendments or laws banning same-sex marriage. There is still much to be done.

Still, the Supreme Court rulings come at a pivotal time of progress for gay-rights advocates both nationally and internationally, and they are certainly an incremental step towards the legalization of gay marriage nationwide. The rulings reflect a major shift in how Americans now view same-sex marriage.

According to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center, only 37 percent of Americans said they were in favor of gays and lesbians getting married. Another Pew Research Center survey conducted in May showed that for the first time, more than half of Americans were in favor of same-sex marriage.

There has also been a steady increase in support of gay marriage and gay rights from public figures including former President Clinton and prominent groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In the lead up to Wednesday’s decisions, numerous politicians in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, are coming out in support of same-sex marriage as well.

Despite the recent victory, there is still strong opposition among some social conservatives and many more developments that lie ahead in this civil-rights saga — 13 states now allow gay marriage, 37 states to go.

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