Supreme Court DOMA: The Anachronistic Law Must Be Struck Down


The U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule later this month on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The act, signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1996, defines marriage to mean "only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife," thus depriving same sex couples who marry in states where it is legal of federal recognition of their marriage. Furthermore, according to Freedom to Marry, this means that same-sex couples are not eligible for "over 1,138...protections and responsibilities afforded to different-sex couples."

The western facade of the Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. proudly proclaims "equal justice under law." But DOMA does not represent equal justice under law. Instead it is a massive, anachronistic misnomer that does not defend marriage itself but rather a narrowly defined and discriminatory concept of marriage that denies equal rights to millions of Americans.

If DOMA were really about defending marriage as an institution, then surely it would be designed to target things such as divorce, adultery, or abusive relationships. But obviously it is not. Instead it simply discriminates against people on the basis of the sex of the person who they marry. As the Washington Post's Joe Davidson notes, the "law is short on words but long on the hurt it has caused." Not even the government is willing to defend the discriminatory law in court, with a "majority-Republican House committee called the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG)" instead stepping up to do so.

According to Freedom to Marry, to date "DOMA has been ruled unconstitutional 10 times in seven different cases." In the case before the Supreme Court, Windsor v. United States, a widow from a same-sex marriage, Edie Windsor, was forced to pay $363,000 in federal taxes on her spouse's inheritance which she would not have had to pay if same sex-marriage had equal federal status. In hearing the case, both the U.S. District Court and the United States Court of Appeals have already ruled that section 3 of DOMA, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court now has to decide how to rule.

If the Supreme Court decides to uphold DOMA or simply throw out the challenge to its constitutionality, it will obviously not be the end the fight for marriage equality. But even if the the court strikes down DOMA as unconstitutional, the fight for marriage equality will not be over either, both in terms of how individual states would react to the decision and in terms of the need to continue to push for wider acceptance of same-sex marriage and gay rights in general. 

As Davidson's comment makes clear, this is about much more than just money. It is about taking an important step towards affording same-sex couples the same recognition and same rights as different sex couples. It is about doing what is right. DOMA does not defend marriage, instead it defends discrimination and has no place in a society that professes to uphold "equal justice under law."