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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Equal Justice Under the Law


It says it right there at the top of the United States Supreme Court building: Equal Justice Under the Law. For same sex couples though, that uniquely American concept eluded them thanks to the wretched Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The 1996 legislation, signed into law in an election year by President Bill Clinton, was passed by wide bipartisan majorities because of nothing more than an antipathy towards homosexuals. The law's impact on LGBT Americans was profound because it meant that the 1,138 federal benefits available to married straight couples were not available to married gay couples. No legitimate economic purpose or real world justification existed for this law. It was pure discrimination based on sexual orientation. 

Its persistence was threatened though in recent years as more and more Americans began to come out to their family members and friends consequently leading to 6 in 10 Americans saying they knew someone who was gay or lesbian. Unsurprisingly, the same proportion of Americans also support marriage equality. Further, the President of the United States endorsed legalizing same sex marriage. Consequently, it caused what my friend Alex Yudelson described as a "political sea change" (the Democratic Party coalescing around the issue, for one) and heightened support for marriage equality among constituencies that were formerly hostile to gay rights. A year prior, the same president authorized his Justice Department to refuse to defend DOMA in federal courts because of its perceived unconstitutionality. As millions of Americans changed their minds on gay rights, buoyed by cultural shifts brought on by things like TV depictions of gays, this law's survival was put at risk. 

Surely, that was also because many Americans not only knew someone gay but many also likely knew or knew of individuals whose lives were actually damaged by DOMA. The plaintiff in the Supreme Court DOMA case, Edie Windsor, was forced to pay back taxes of over $300,000 only because she was married to a woman. The NSA surveillance reporter and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald - along with thousands of other LGBT Americans - was forced to live outside of the country with his male partner because DOMA wouldn't allow Greenwald to sponsor his partner for a green card. Social Security survivor benefits available to widowed straight spouses were denied to widowed gay spouses even if they had trouble making ends meet. The tax benefits available to married straight couples were denied to gay couples - again, only because they were gay. 

Today, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling led by consistently pro-gay rights Justice Anthony Kennedy, chose to end this injustice. The rationale Kennedy and the four liberal justices used was a simple one. The Fifth Amendment implicitly grants federal government protection of the equality of all persons - a right that is granted to state governments to protect in the 14th Amendment. In the case of DOMA, the federal government clearly did not protect persons equally in section 3 of the law. Indeed, they made an exception for gay people solely based on their sexual orientation and not for any compelling governmental interest. Therefore, the core of DOMA - Section 3 - was allowed to die. This huge victory for the gay rights community was a victory for our country's promise of equality for all, a cause fought for and won by mass movements of the disenfranchised throughout our history. 

It also had immediate consequences. President Obama directed the federal government to begin figuring out the process of providing marriage benefits to legally married same sex couples. At the Defense Department, Secretary Hagel said the Pentagon will implement the DOMA ruling to ensure gay military couples get the same benefits as straight couples. In New York, an immigration judge, 30 minutes after the DOMA ruling was handed down, halted the deportation proceedings of a married gay man. On Slate.com, Mr. Greenwald suggested he will eventually move back to the U.S. because of today's ruling. The Office of Personnel Management is moving full steam ahead with implementation. The IRS now owes Ms. Windsor $363,000 she paid only because of her sexual orientation. Interestingly, the ruling may also mean that the federal budget deficit will be lowered.

It is inconceivable to this American how anybody in this country can look at these developments and not be elated for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Their pursuit of liberty and justice for all is something we should be proud of because it shows that with persistence and determination, the cause of greater equality ultimately prevails. There is more work to be done but today undeniably was a crucial reaffirmation of equal justice under the law.