News & Politics

Supreme Court Throws Out Federal Defense of Marriage Act, Elevating Rights of Same-Sex Couples

The 5-4 decision was opposed by right-wing justices.

Photo Credit: M Blanken/

In the first of two highly anticipated same-sex marriage cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sections of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)x is unconstitutional on equal protection grounds--that U.S. citizens cannot be treated differently under the law. 

 "The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity, by seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others," the Court held in 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. 

However, the ruling does not establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

The Court's was reviewing the part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 that defines marriage to be “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” in determining federal benefits violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause.  It came in a lawsuit about federal taxes where the plaintiff, Edith Windsor, claimed that she was entitled to a tax refund of more than $363,000 after her same-sex spouse died.  The Court's right-wing Justices opposed the DOMA ruling and read from their dissents from the bench.  The immediate effect is that married same-sex couples in the twelve states that allow such unions, along with the District of Columbia, will now become subject to more than 1,000 federal laws and programs and start to receive federal benefits. Those states include: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota, Iowa and Washington. 
It is a little early to predict what the more general effect of the ruling will have on the rest of the 1996 law, but most legal experts have previously said that this this kind of ruling would effectively spell the end of the challenged part of the 1996 law.  
On the other hand, it is likely to have no direct effect on state-based bans on same-sex marriage. The Court's second ruling on same-sex marriage is expected later this morning as well, but legal observers are already saying that language in this ruling suggests that it will dismiss a California suit challenging a lower court decision that overruled a state ballot measure banning same-sex marriage.
If so, the result is that the country will be further divided on red and blue state lines on the issue of same-sex marriage, with advocates forced to fight for years in state legislatures for state-based rights, while the federal government cannot make the legal distinction between different and same-sex married couples.      


Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).