Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision felling part of the Defense of Marriage Act is about the profound, and the mundane, about who we are as a nation and how we live from day to day.
We settled the profound part long ago in Massachusetts. We are all equally human. Love belongs to everyone, gay or straight. “The decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition,” wrote Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, in the state’s landmark Supreme Judicial Court decision legalizing same sex marriage here in 2003. Denying that momentous act to a class of people violates our fundamental principles.
The following August, Norma Scogin and Sherry Quirk married on a balmy, blue-sky day, surrounded by 80 friends and relatives at a pretty restaurant in Westport. They had waited a long time. Scogin first proposed on Maui’s Hamoa Beach back in 1996, when it looked like gay marriage would become legal in Hawaii (it didn’t). By the time their wedding day finally arrived — their daughter Keelin, then 6, appointed herself “ring barrier” — they had fully merged their lives.
Other gay and lesbian couples wed, everybody went on as normal. Despite dire predictions, the sky held over the Commonwealth. This is who we are. And soon, it became the way 11 other states and the District of Columbia are as well (the Supreme Court appears to have added a 13th, California, on Wednesday).
The joy of wedding days has a way of yielding to the less heady practicalities of daily life. The profound makes room for the mundane matters couples must attend to: doing taxes, buying and keeping houses, estate planning. And that’s where the exuberant couples who lined up outside city and town halls for marriage licenses all those years ago bumped up against the limits of their immense victory: DOMA denied them more than 1,000 of the federal benefits given to heterosexual spouses.
Scogin was a stay-at-home mother. Quirk, an attorney, supported the family and provided health insurance. Because of DOMA, Quirk had to pay taxes on Scogin’s premiums. Because of DOMA, they could not file jointly as a married couple, and so had to pay higher taxes than heterosexual spouses.
The couple fretted over what would happen if one of them passed away: Because of DOMA, Scogin wasn’t entitled to benefits from Quirk’s Social Security. Because of DOMA, she would have had to pay estate taxes on the houses they both own.
“We would have had a huge mess on our hands if something happened to one or the other of us,” Scogin said yesterday. “I would have been Edith Windsor.”
Windsor, the plaintiff in the case decided by the Supreme Court, was billed $363,053 in estate taxes after her wife and longtime partner died. That payment, and other bureaucratic indignities like it, will be history now. Some will be swept away quickly with new federal regulations. Others will require political battles, and possibly ugly ones. But tax season will no longer be a reminder of gay and lesbian couples’ second-class status: Next April, they will suffer in exactly the same ways as other married couples do.
“It is huge, so huge,” Scogin said. “Such a relief.”
More couples, in more states, will feel burdens lifted. Not just because the president, many Democrats, and a smattering of prominent Republicans say it should be so. And not just because the nation is moving toward accepting gay rights as generations shift. It is also because the Supreme Court has provided an enormously potent tool to help same-sex marriage advocates press their case.
By striking down a section of DOMA under the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, rather than as purely a matter of state rights, the justices have called the attempt to deny federal benefits to some married couples what it is — an affront to a bedrock American principle, equal
access to our cherished liberties.
“Saying gay couples should be treated equally under the law sets the stage for bringing the victory we’ve enjoyed in Massachusetts . . . to more states,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “It sends a message to gay and straight people across America that equal protection under the law means not being discriminated against based on who you love.”
Those five Supreme Court justices have done more than keep pace with public opinion on gay marriage, more than expand the rights of those lucky enough to live in states that recognize their relationships. They’ve begun a new era in the battle to extend those rights — profound and mundane — to others who sorely need them.