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Potential SCOTUS Review of DOMA Presents Potential Pivotal Moment for Gay Rights in America

On Friday this week, the US Supreme Court judges are expected to announce which, if any, cases related to gay rights they will review. At stake are not only the right to marry and federal recognition of marriage-related financial benefits for same-sex couples who are already married.

On Friday, November 30th (or today as you read this), the US Supreme Court judges are expected to announce which, if any, cases related to gay rights they will review. At stake are not only the right to marry and federal recognition of marriage-related financial benefits for same-sex couples who are already married. The cases before the Court touch upon our understanding of “the family” as an essential building block of society, and whether we can reasonably expect individuals to put part of who they are on hold in order to be considered worthy citizens.

The Supreme Court has been asked to review the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (known as DOMA), a piece of legislation which was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, and which forbids the recognition of same-sex marriages for the purposes of federal benefits such as tax breaks, social security survivor benefits, and estate tax.

DOMA also prohibits married same-sex couples from benefitting from the same immigration rights as married opposite-sex couples, leading to the summary denial of green cards to foreign spouses of U.S. citizens and permanent residents merely because they are not straight. But in June this year, the US Board of Immigration Appeals sent four such cases back to immigration authorities to determine whether the marriages are valid under state law and whether those marriages would qualify for immigration purposes in the absence of DOMA.

Those decisions follow Obama’s early 2011 announcement that his administration would no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA. In fact, the Board of Immigrations Appeals’ decision appear at least in part to be made in preparation for a, hopefully not too distant, post-DOMA world. But until this law is declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, or repealed by Congress, DOMA will remain force.

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Opponents of the federal recognition of same-sex marriage benefits at times phrase their view as a defense of “the family” as the basic building block of society, implicitly or explicitly noting that only opposite-sex couples with or without children also are worthy of state protection as inherently “good.”

And several international and regional human rights documents do, indeed, establish the “family” as a fundamental group unit of society, and, in particular, as essential in the upbringing of children and the protection of the rights of the child. 

However, the definition of what a family might look like to qualify for state protection is deliberately broad and inclusive. In 2006, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child clarified that when it talks about “family,” it means any number of arrangements, including same-sex families. In February this year, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights expressed a similar notion: “The Court confirms that the American Convention does not define a limited concept of family, nor does it only protect a “traditional” model of the family.”

More to the point, perhaps, study after study has dis-proven that an opposite-sex nuclear family is the only appropriate unit for bringing up children, and more than a third of children in the United States now live in single parent households and same-sex families.

Of course, this is not about marriage in the abstract, but rather about the benefits we assign to married couples, concretely, through the law. It is precisely because marital relationship are prioritized in law that same-sex couples would benefit tremendously from being allowed to marry in the first place, and to obtain federal tax, social security, and inheritance benefits when they do. If no marital relationships were given special status under the law, the impact of DOMA might be less stark on both adults and children.

It is unlikely that the Supreme Court judges will challenge this general privilege in law. But we can hope they decide to look at the suffering its unequal implementation causes.

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