Supreme Court: DOMA Fails on Equal Protection

By Brett Snider, Esq. on June 26, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down Section 3 of DOMA on equal protection grounds in a landmark decision that will allow legally married gay couples to receive federal marriage benefits.

The Court's decision Wednesday in United States v. Windsor dealt with a provision in the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that prevented legally married gay couples from collecting federal marriage benefits.

That included refunds for federal estate taxes, which affected same-sex spouses like plaintiff Edie Windsor, reports The Huffington Post.

Ruling Only Applies to Section 3

Although the Windsor ruling contains a great deal of broad proclamations about constitutional equal protection and gay marriage, the ruling is focused solely on Section 3 of DOMA, the "definitional" provision.

This section limited marriage in federal statutes and regulations to mean only unions between one man and one woman -- a definition that prevented married couples like Edie Windsor and her late spouse (whose marriage was legally recognized under New York law) from receiving federal recognition of their marriage.

The Supreme Court leaves untouched Section 2 of DOMA, which allows states to refuse to recognize gay marriages from other states.

DOMA's Equal Protection Problem

Just like with other civil rights areas where separate but "equal" institutions were created as a compromise, the basic precepts of constitutional equal protection cannot allow laws whose basic purpose is to demean or denigrate a politically unpopular group.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in Windsor, echoed his opinion from the Court's 1996 ruling in Romer v. Evans. Kennedy found there is strong evidence that DOMA was a "moral disapproval of homosexuality" and at least in practice serves to disadvantage and stigmatize gay marriages.

By depriving Windsor of federal marriage benefits, DOMA was in fact depriving her of her rights to due process and equal protection under the law provided by the Fifth Amendment. And since DOMA's practical and avowed purpose is to demean or stigmatize, the law is unconstitutional, the Court's opinion held.

Dissent Warns of Future Challenges

Not one to be left out when gay marriage or sex is concerned, Justice Antonin Scalia read his dissent in Windsor from the bench. Scalia blasted the majority for using this case as a spotlight to aggrandize itself and its opinions on social issues.

Calling the majority's equal protection arguments half-baked, Justice Scalia argued that there are several legitimate government reasons for DOMA other than bare animus, such as settling choice-of-law problems between states that have different marriage laws.

Scalia worried that future plaintiffs will use the broad canvas of the Windsor decision as a blueprint to challenge state prohibitions on gay marriage, even though the majority assures that this opinion is limited to married couples in states that recognize same-sex marriage.

Given the majority's broad proclamations about laws like DOMA demeaning the dignity and freedoms of same-sex couples, Scalia is probably right.

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