Today’s Gay Marriage Rulings in One Word: Dignity

Family/Kids, Lisa Bloom, News, Rights

SCOTUS and DOMA - originalTwo historic decisions were announced by the US Supreme Court today, striking down two modern anti-gay laws, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal benefits to same sex spouses, and California’s Proposition 8, which had defined marriage as between a man and a woman only.  Having read them both, I’m struck by the Court’s recognition that these laws fundamentally disrespected LGBT Americans, and its effort to restore their dignity.

The DOMA decision rests on the Court’s distaste for the federal law’s singling out gays and lesbians to deny them access to the over one thousand federal rights and benefits enjoyed by married partners, such as social security and tax benefits.  Plaintiff Edith Windsor had been forced to pay $360,000 in taxes after the death of her wife, money that she would not have had to pay had she been in a heterosexual marriage.

Legally speaking, U.S. v. Windsor turns on the majority’s frequent references to the dignity – probably the one word repeated most in the decision — to which same sex couples ought to be entitled.  The State of New York’s “decision to give this class of persons the right to marry conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import,” Justice Kennedy wrote.  DOMA caused “injury and indignity,” and interfered “with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages.” And so on.

Look how essential protecting the dignity of gay couples is here, in the core of the decision:

Responsibilities, as well as rights, enhance the dignity and integrity of the person. . . DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages. . . This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage.  The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects, and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify.  And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples.  The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.

A decade ago, Justice Kennedy wrote broadly of the same values of dignity and respect in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down state laws criminalizing private consensual adult gay sex.  It bears repeating:  just a decade ago, states could and did arrest and incarcerate Americans for consenting to private acts of same sex intimacy.  And now, the federal government must treat lesbians and gay men as equals.

Why?  Because their dignity matters.

Prop 8 was struck down on more technical grounds:  the Supreme Court held that the anti-gay marriage camp did not have legal standing to bring the case before them.  Thus the lower court decision stands, striking down Prop 8, and millions of same sex partners in California, the nation’s most populous state, may marry.

Because of this technicality, we do not yet have a Supreme Court decision holding that all Americans, gay or straight, may legally marry the partner of their choice.  But surely that is now just around the bend.  I believe that a properly brought future challenge to a state law banning gay marriage would stand a good chance of prevailing, given the court’s sweeping equality ruling in the DOMA case.  How could a state’s grant of marriage benefits to heterosexual partners, but not gay spouses, recognize the essential dignity to which all partners are entitled?  It could not.  The DOMA case is now a powerful precedent for full equal rights for all LGBT Americans.

The opinions expressed here represent my own and not necessarily those of