Supreme Court strikes down same-sex marriage benefits ban

June 26, 2013
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The U.S. Supreme Court today struck down a core section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which bans same-sex married couples from receiving various benefits that opposite-sex married couples do.

DOMA’s benefits provision previously had been ruled unconstitutional by lower courts, including in a landmark case last year that included a Jamaica Plain couple among its plaintiffs.

The Supreme Court ruled that the 1996 DOMA is an unconstitutional law that violates the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees to equal protection under the law and due process, as well as the states’ rights to oversee marriage. The case, United States v. Windsor, involved a New York woman who was denied the federal estate tax exemption when her spouse, who also was a woman, died. The government denied the tax exemption due to DOMA, which bans same-sex couples from receiving more than 1,000 formal benefits, even though the state of New York officially recognized the marriage.

In its 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said that the fundamental reason DOMA was created was to perpetuate a “stigma” against gay people.

Last year’s Massachusetts case involving JP couple Bette Jo Green and Jo Ann Whitehead was among those considered likely for Supreme Court review. But the court instead chose to rule in the Windsor case, which resolves the DOMA issue in all similar cases.

In another same-sex marriage ruling today, the Supreme Court essentially halted a legal fight against same-sex marriage in California. A voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage in that state previously was ruled unconstitutional by a lower court. Advocates of the same-sex marriage ban had unsuccessfully appealed. In today’s decision in the case, known as Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Supreme Court ruled that the backers of the same-sex marriage ban lacked standing, or legal grounds to bring the case in the first place.

The legal battle for same-sex marriage rights in the United States and the world started in Boston about 10 years ago with a lawsuit filed by a group of plaintiffs that included several JP couples.

The full text of the Windsor opinion and dissents filed by some justices can be read at supremecourt.gov/opinions.

Correction version: This version clarifies that the Supreme Court overturned the key section of DOMA that restricts marriage benefits, but did not touch another section on the states’ rights to define marriage and refuse to recognize same-sex marriages certified in other states.