A divided Supreme Court has struck down the controversial Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from conferring benefits on same-sex couples and allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

The case arose when Edith Windsor sued the Internal Revenue Service in order to get a refund of the estate taxes she was assessed when her wife (whom she had married in Ontario) died. The IRS refused to issue the refund since the federal Defense of Marriage Act did not allow Windsor to receive the same exemption from estate taxes that a heterosexual surviving spouse would receive.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy (joined by Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) held that “DOMA rejects the long established precept that the incidents, benefits, and obligations of marriage are uniform for all married couples within each State, though they may vary, subject to constitutional guarantees, from one State to the next.”

“DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.,” Kennedy continued.

Citing the legislative record, Kennedy pointed out that the entire purpose of DOMA was to interfere with states’ sovereign ability to regulate marriage. At the time of its passage, a report by the House of Representatives stated that the bill demonstrated “both moral disapproval of homosexuality, and a moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality.”

However, Kennedy argued that DOMA ended up “[writing] inequality into the entire United States Code.”

“DOMA′s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency,” Kennedy continued.

“Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible  and public ways. By its great reach, DOMA touches many aspects of married and family life, from the mundane to the profound.”

The majority opinion drew stinging rebukes from the court’s more conservative justices. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia argued that the court lacked standing to hear the case, and the two also agreed that Congress acted constitutionally in passing DOMA.

“At least without some more convincing evidence that the Act′s principal purpose was to codify malice, and that it furthered no legitimate government interests, I would  not tar the political branches with the brush of bigotry,” Roberts wrote.

Although many advocates of same-sex marriage will be celebrating today’s ruling, it did not go as far as to declare that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, leaving the ball firmly in the states’ courts.


Image credit: The DOMA Project via Facebook