July 3rd, 2013

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Gay Rights


Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court issued two rulings on the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage. In a victory for gay rights activists, the Supreme Court extended benefits to legally married gay couples, but did not rule on the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage.


In the first case of United States v. Windsor, the court found that the the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), was unconstitutional because it violated the right to equal protection under the law.

In a split decision broken by the moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court said that DOMA “singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty.”


The Constitution declares that no state “shall deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.” In other words, states must apply the law equally to all citizens.

This means that benefits previously reserved only for straight couple marriages under national law, will now be extended to same-sex couples as well.

Read the full text of the decision here

The decision turned on the case of Edith Windsor who married Thea Clara Spyer in Canada.  The couple lived in the United States.  Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, when Spyer died, Windsor had to pay over $300,000 in estate taxes, which she would have avoided if their marriage was recognized by the federal government.

Passed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, DOMA defined marriage as a legal union only between one man and one woman. It also enabled states to decline to recognize same-sex marriages that may have been legal elsewhere.

Gay and lesbian couples are not granted social security survivor benefits, health insurance benefits and tax benefits, among other advantages. If a spouse dies, the remaining spouse and any children do not get any social security benefits. Based on the definition provided in DOMA, companies are not required to offer same-sex spouses or their children health insurance.

The Supreme Court also delivered an opinion in the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry, widely known as the Proposition 8 case, saying that those who brought the case to court did not have the legal standing to do so. With this ruling, the court did not rule on the legality of Prop 8, it did rule on whether private parties could represent the government interest.


When Prop 8 was challenged in court, government officials refused to go into court to defend it. Instead, supporters of the law were allowed by the California Supreme Court to step in and defend it on behalf of the government. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that the supporters did not have the right to speak on behalf of the government, and therefore any rulings made by other courts have no legal force.

The case will go back to the appellate court on California for a decision.

Read the full text of the decision here

Proposition 8, enacted in 2008, banned gay marriages, but continued to recognize unions performed before the ban. Same-sex unions had been made legal in the state only months before. Many feel that the law is unconstitutional because it denies same-sex couples the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

Student organizations reach out

This month, activists gathered in Washington, D.C., to voice support for laws protecting the rights of same sex marriage. SMYAL, a student organization that strives to empower and support LGBT youth, participated in the Capital Pride events. SMYAL Member Anna Tsai has been working with the organization for over a year and feels that equality is necessary in schools.

“Youth really need a lot of support,” she said. “A lot of them don’t get a lot of support from their families.”

President Barack Obama recently endorsed gay marriage at a reception celebrating LGBT Pride Month and noted that both opinions and laws change over time.

“I think they’re taking some steps in the right direction, but it’s something that’s really got to come from the people first”, Tsai said. At the time, she said she hoped the Supreme Court would strike down DOMA, but “given the temperament of the court right now it’s a little more conservative so that hope is kind of optimistic but somewhat doubtful. If they don’t do this it’s going to be harder for us going forward.”

Lack of benefits cause for concern

Zoe Zakin, a student living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, comes out to the Capital Pride events annually.

“I have a few really close friends who are gay. I have family members, neighbors. So I’ve always supported gay rights,” she said. “I just think no human being should have their rights taken away from them for any reason; sexual orientation, race, gender. It’s just not okay.”

Noah Zweben, a student from Potomac, Maryland, was looking forward to hearing the Supreme Court decision. “I think the Supreme Court has a really incredible opportunity to be a driving force for social change and I really hope they rule for gay marriage all the way across the board.”

Zweben is a strong supporter of marriage equality.

“I’m gay and I think its incredibly important to create an environment where people can grow up feeling comfortable with who they are and not have to try and hide.”

— Compiled by Carrie Waltemeyer and Allison McCartney for NewsHour Extra

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