This week marks a seminal point in our nation’s history of same-sex marriage. Two cases will be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court that directly affects the rights of LGBT persons to marry. Hollingsworth v. Perry will be heard on Tuesday, March 26th, and United States v. Windsor will be heard on Wednesday, March 27th. Each of these cases could have a drastic impact on marriage equality in the United States.
Hollingsworth v. Perry addresses a very important issue that has yet to be defined by the Supreme Court: Whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the State of California from defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. This case was brought as a challenge to California’s Prop. 8. As it now stands, the federal Defense Against Marriage Act (DOMA) permits the federal government and states to ignore legally performed same-sex marriages in the states that allow them. If the Supreme Court finds that LGBT people are discriminated against through the laws of DOMA, it would be unconstitutional for a state to legally define marriage to exclude gay persons.
The decision in Perry will likely only directly affect California law, but it would be a huge victory for equality. We could see a ripple effect throughout the nation of states once again recognizing marriages performed in other states. This would open the door for new legal definitions of marriage to emerge that would grant the right of LGBT couples to have their relationship recognized by the law. A favorable ruling in Perry would pave the way to grant all people the right to marry the person they love.
United States v. Windsor addresses a slightly different issue. On the 27th the Supreme Court will decide whether or not Section 3 of DOMA violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws as applied to persons of the same sex who are legally married under the laws of their State. The ACLU brought this case after an 83 year old woman was charged an exorbitant tax bill for her wife’s property when she passed away—they were together for over 40 years! The federal government refused to recognize the women’s legal Canadian marriage and would not apply federal tax benefits for married couples to the property.
This case brings to light a hugely important issue, whether or not the federal government must recognize all legal marriages. For example, my wife and I were legally married in Iowa in October. Our marriage is recognized by the State of Iowa but not the federal government. I cannot receive any federal benefits that may be entitled to my wife, and I still have to file my federal taxes as “single” among many other issues. Gay and lesbian people who serve in the military cannot receive spousal benefits or recognition of their spouses if they are the same gender, even if they are legally married. And the same is true for federal employees who want to add their same-sex spouse to their benefits package. A favorable ruling in Windsor would confer federal benefits on all legally married couples and would prevent the federal government from denying the rights and existence of legally married same-sex couples.
Here in Nevada, the ACLU will participate in Equality Days on Tuesday and Wednesday with groups from around the state who are working for equal treatment of LGBTQ people. Members of our staff and board, and many of our supporters will participate on Tuesday morning in the hearing on SJR 13—to repeal the discriminatory definition of marriage in Nevada’s constitution. During Equality Days we will visit with our elected representatives to discuss legislation that seeks to end discrimination of our LGBTQ citizens and treat them equally under the law.