Widow says federal law banning recognition of same-sex marriages violates equal protection rights of the US constitution
Supreme court justices will hear arguments on Wednesday over the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, a Clinton-era measure that enshrines discrimination against same-sex couples in US federal law.
A day after the court considered whether to overturn California's gay marriage ban, the justices will consider the case of Edie Windsor, who says her 2007 marriage to Thea Spyer should have offered the same federal rights and benefits as a union between a man and a woman.
Windsor and her supporters say section 3 of Doma violates the 14th amendment of the US constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law. The Obama administration said in 2011 it considered the law unconstitutional and would no longer defend it, while former president Bill Clinton, who signed the measure into law, has said it should be overturned. Campaigners believe there is a good chance the justices will rule the provisions to be unconstitutional.
Windsor, a former IT worker, met Spyer in 1965. They became engaged in 1967 and finally married in Toronto in 2007. Spyer died in 2009 after battling multiple sclerosis for many years, but, unlike opposite-sex married couples, Windsor was not entitled to any tax relief on her inheritance. Windsor had to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes.
Roberta Kaplan, Windsor's lawyer, will tell the supreme court on Wednesday that she is not seeking to establish a right for same-sex couples to marry but to oblige the federal government to recognise those marriages in states that permit them.
"The point with Doma [is that] it's really unfair, unconstitutional and a violation of equal protection for the federal government for the first time in our country's history to have two classes of married couples," she said ahead of the hearing.
On Tuesday, the court heard arguments on Proposition 8, the 2008 California referendum barring gay marriage in the state. Liberal justices seemed unimpressed with the argument of opponents of same sex marriage that the central purpose of marriage is procreation, arguing that many marriages cannot bear children. But the conservatives were critical of rapid change on marriage as undermining centuries of tradition.
It is possible that none of the justices will push a sweeping ruling, however. Experts speculate that the court could sidestep a decision on the legality of Proposition 8, on the basis that the plaintiffs – who support the gay marriage ban – do not have legal standing to bring the case, as the state of California declined to do so when the referendum result was overturned by a federal court.
Those hopeful of eventually attaining equal marriage rights may have more to cheer for on Wednesday, however. The Obama administration has urged the supreme court to strike down Doma, saying it violates the guarantees of equal protection under the law by denying same-sex married couples federal benefits available to married heterosexuals.
This month Bill Clinton, who signed the bill into law in 1996, said he believed the measure is unconstitutional and should be overturned.
"As the president who signed the act into law, I have come to believe that Doma is contrary to those principles and in fact, incompatible with our constitution," Clinton said.
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