U.S. Supreme Court strikes down DOMA, extends federal benefits to gay couples

The U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 Wednesday to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, the Clinton-era law that denied an array of federal benefits to married same-sex couples in Connecticut and 11 other states where gay marriage is legal.

“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a decision for the majority.

In a separate case, the court issued a narrower decision ruling that opponents of gay marriage had no legal standing to oppose a lower-court decision overturning California’s ban on same-sex unions, which was passed by a referendum question, Proposition 8.

The decisions set off celebrations among gay couples, both for the specific benefits they now can receive and for the broader symbolism of the nation’s highest court denouncing the discrimination against same-sex couples as unconstitutional.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a strong supporter of gay rights, ordered the gay pride flag flown over the Executive Residence in Hartford. He said he would have flown it over the State Capitol, but rules prohibit the display of political banners over the Capitol.

“I’m happy. I’m happy for our country. I’m happy for the citizens of Connecticut who can get married in Connecticut and the federal government will recognize it,” Malloy said in a telephone interview. “It’s an important right.”

Politicians and others marveled at the continued rapid acceptance of gay marriage, noting that the Defense of Marriage Act passed just 17 years ago with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

Like Clinton, who has expressed regret over his signing the law in 1996, President Obama opposed gay marriage for most of his political career, withholding his formal support until an interview in May 2012 during his campaign for re-election.

But he was quick Wednesday to praise the court and reach out to the gay community. Activists outside the Supreme Court were surprised to receive a congratulatory call from Obama, who was aboard Air Force One, as they were being interviewed live on television.

Obama declined to have his administration defend the Defense of Marriage Act.

“This was discrimination enshrined in law,” Obama said Wednesday. “It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people.  The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it.  We are a people who declared that we are all created equal — and the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

Peter Wolfgang, the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, denounced the DOMA decision, but he expressed relief at the narrowness of the ruling about California’s Proposition 8, an anti-gay-marriage referendum invalidated by a lower court.

While the case provided an opportunity for the court to assert a constitutional right to marriage, the court simply ruled in an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts that gay-marriage opponents had no legal standing to defend Proposition 8.

“The good news is that the Supreme Court did not find a right to same-sex marriage the U.S. Constitution, as it did with abortion in 1973,” Wolfgang said in a telephone interview from Colorado Springs, Colo., where he and other traditional marriage advocates were meeting. 

Brian Brown, his predecessor in Connecticut who now oversees the National Organization for Marriage, which organized to get Proposition 8 on the ballot, was not as sanguine.

“In a miscarriage of justice the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to consider the decision of a single federal court judge to overturn the perfectly legal action of over 7 million California voters who passed Proposition 8 defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” Brown said.

The DOMA case will have a sweeping impact for same-sex couples, especially those married to foreigners, whose marriages have not provided the legal immigration status routinely provided to those in heterosexual unions.

But the court’s two decisions did nothing to force states other than California to legalize gay marriage.

“The big picture politically is that the fight over marriage goes on,” Wolfgang said.

On that, both sides agree.

Michael P. Lawlor, who shepherded the passage of gay rights laws in Connecticut as a state lawmaker and now serves as a senior aide to Malloy, received news of the decision with his new husband, David Zakur, outside the Stonewall Inn in New York, birthplace of the gay rights movement.

“We thought why not just be there?” said Lawlor, who is on “a mini-honeymoon” after getting married over the weekend at the governor’s Executive Residence. “The big difference now is we’ll be treated like any other married couple.”

Lawlor’s wedding was its own symbolic milestone about the acceptance of gay marriage in Connecticut.

The ceremony at the Executive Residence was performed by Andrew McDonald, the first openly gay justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court.

McDonald and Lawlor were co-chairmen of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee before both joined the Malloy administration, Lawlor as a criminal justice adviser and McDonald as the governor’s general counsel.

They helped steer the Connecticut General Assembly to passage of the nation’s first same-sex civil unions law without court intervention in 2005, ignoring some national gay-rights groups, such as Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which demanded a marriage law or nothing.

Lawlor said he and other supporters of a civil-unions law were correct in arguing that it eventually would provoke a court to legalize marriage, since the civil-unions law provided all the benefits of marriage as controlled by state law.

The Connecticut Supreme Court, citing the civil-union law, legalized gay marriage in 2008. It was codified in state law by the General Assembly the following spring, though Wolfgang noted that the legislation contained legislation protecting religious institutions that object to same-sex unions.

Beth Kerrigan, who sued to win the right to same-sex marriage in Connecticut, celebrated with her twin boys and other same sex couples Wednesday morning.

“I’m ecstatic, my kids are ecstatic. It’s just a wonderful day,” said Kerrigan, who was close to tears. “We have waited so long and worked so long and we’re thankful.”

Kerrigan, who is married to Jody Mock, said she is grateful to live in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, but said there is still work to be done for those in other states who don’t have the same right.

State Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, who became the first in the state to marry her partner, Tracey Wilson, in 2008, was celebrating with Kerrigan.

“It’s awesome. I’m so excited. I’m now married federally,” Bye said. “This changes how we’ll do taxes, Social Security and financial aid. It’ll affect us in one thousand different ways.”

“More importantly, I think it’s that we’re not ‘the other’ anymore. We’re married,” Bye said.

Benefits to flow

One of the federal benefits that would have been restricted for same-sex couples was tax credits designed to cut the cost of buying health care coverage through the state’s health insurance exchange, a marketplace being set up as part of federal health reform.

Under DOMA, a married couple would not have been considered a family in calculating eligibility, which is based on income and family size.

The exchange board was meeting when the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday. Shortly after the decision was released, an emotional Victoria Veltri, the state’s healthcare advocate and a member of the board, announced that same-sex couples would now be able to receive federal help affording coverage.

“That may be a coding change that we’ll be more than happy to make,” exchange CEO Kevin Counihan said.

Joanne Pedersen, a federal retiree from Waterford, was thrilled by the decision mainly because it means her partner can now go on her health insurance.

Pedersen’s wife, Ann Meitzen, spends nearly 60 percent of her Social Security benefits on medical expenses for her chronic lung condition, Pedersen said.

She couldn’t be covered by Pedersen’s federal retiree health benefits because the federal government did not recognize her marriage to a same-sex spouse.

“Financially it would help us a lot,” Pedersen said.

Pedersen was among several couples in New England represented in a federal lawsuit filed by Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders against the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The suit successfully challenged the definition of marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman.

“I am excited. I’m ecstatic,” she said. “Can I go online and sign her up to be on my health benefits now?”

Becaue of DOMA, gay couples have had to pay federal taxes on the value of benefits derived through a spouse’s health coverage. For straight couples, such benefits are tax free.

Striking down the law also will grant gay couples the same spousal survivor benefits under Social Security and pension laws.

Valerie Stewart, the president of the Connecticut chapter of Pride @ Work, said, “Because of the SCOTUS ruling today Connecticut’s working men and women and their families will be afforded 1,138 rights and responsibilities to which LGBT families were previously not entitled, even though Connecticut allows same-sex marriage.”

Arielle Levin Becker contributed to this report.

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