The US is inching closer towards marriage equality across the nation as its Supreme Court on Wednesday delivered historic victories in two cases concerning same-sex marriage.
The first, Windsor v. US, dealt with the constitutionality of a section of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that stopped same-sex couples who had married in states where this is legal from receiving federal recognition and benefits.
The 83-year-old Edie Windsor had challenged DOMA after she was forced to pay $363,000 in estate taxes when her partner and spouse of more than 40 years, Thea Spyer, passed away.
If Windsor had been married to a man, instead of a woman, her estate tax bill would have been zero.
On Wednesday morning, four of the five Supreme Court judges sided with Windsor and agreed to strike down this section of DOMA because it is discriminatory.
“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
“By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment,” he said.
Lawfully-married couples living in the 12 states where same-sex marriage is legal will soon have equal access to all federal rights and benefits based on marital status.
The Human Right Campaign (HRC) said, however, that for married couples living in states without marriage equality, it is unclear if they will have access to all of these benefits.
The second case that the Supreme Court was asked to deliberate on, Hollingsworth v. Perry, dealt with the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage in California.
The ban was put in place by 52% of California voters in a referendum in November 2008, after the state had earlier legalised same-sex marriage. It then became the subject of ongoing legal battles.
While lower courts had ruled the ban unconstitutional, opponents of gay marriage took the matter to the Supreme Court. The justices, however, refused on Wednesday to rule on the matter on a technicality.
The means that the earlier ruling that the ban is unconstitutional stands and same-sex marriage will once again become legal in California.
By not ruling on the actual merits of the Prop 8 ban, however, the Supreme Court avoided having to decide on the broader question of whether same-sex couples are entitled to the right to marry.
With the return of same-sex marriage to California, 13 states will now legally allow gay couples to marry. This means that around 30% of Americans will have access to marriage equality.
“Today’s historic decisions put two giant cracks in the dark wall of discrimination that separates committed gay and lesbian couples from full equality,” said HRC president Chad Griffin.
He noted, however, that “these decisions underscore the emergence of two Americas. In one, LGBT citizens are nearing full equality. In the other, our community lacks even the most basic protections.”
“While we celebrate the victory for Californians today, tomorrow we turn our attention to the millions of LGBT people who don’t feel the reach of these decisions,” said Griffin.