From the Southern Poverty Law Center
MONTGOMERY – The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday to strike down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is a significant step forward for same-sex couples, one that will affect a lawsuit the Southern Poverty Law Center filed on behalf of a disabled U.S. veteran and her wife, the civil rights organization said.
The high court’s ruling means the federal government must recognize legally married same-sex couples for the purpose of federal programs, giving them access to the same federal benefits as married heterosexual couples. This issue is at the center of an SPLC lawsuit filed on behalf of Tracey Cooper-Harris, a disabled veteran denied benefits for married veterans because she is in a same-sex marriage.
“Today’s decision is a step in the right direction for same-sex couples who have made legal commitments to each other,” said David Dinielli, SPLC deputy legal director. “The court’s long-overdue decision affirms that Section 3 of DOMA constitutes an irrational and unjustified deprivation of the dignity and liberty interests of gay people and same-sex couples. It seems almost unthinkable that such a blatantly unfair law would exist today.”
The Supreme Court ruled that the section is “unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.” The Court was troubled that DOMA singles out for discrimination “a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty.” The court noted that “DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others.”
Finally, the Court held that “[DOMA] 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.”
The Court also refused to rule on the merits of a separate case challenging a state law preventing marriage equality, Hollingsworth v. Perry. The case challenged a ballot initiative, Proposition 8, approved by California voters to strip from same-sex couples the right to marry after this constitutional right had been recognized by California courts. The trial court held that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional. Today, the Supreme Court held that petitioners—citizens who were the original proponents of Proposition 8—had no standing to appeal the trial court’s order and defend the constitutionality of Proposition 8.
“We are overjoyed that today’s decision recognizes our legal marriage – and the legal marriages of other same-sex couples – as equal under federal law,” said Tracey Cooper-Harris. “Even though we have had to fight the federal government for equal veterans benefits, we are among the fortunate few who were able to marry before Proposition 8 went into effect in California. While this is a win for same-sex couples in legal marriages, there is still work to be done, and we remain dedicated to fighting for other couples who have been refused one of the most basic rights – marriage – by unfair laws such as California’s Proposition 8.”
The SPLC and co-counsel WilmerHale filed a federal lawsuit in February 2012 on behalf of Tracey and her wife, Maggie, who were married in California in November 2008. The case, Tracey Cooper-Harris v. the United States, is ongoing. In addition to challenging Section 3 of DOMA, it also challenges Title 38, a statute that governs veteran benefits, which also defines “spouse” as a person of the opposite sex.
Tracey receives disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for a number of conditions. Because married veterans and their spouses are eligible to receive a number of benefits from the VA, including additional disability compensation, the couple challenged laws that require the VA to deny recognition of Maggie as Tracey’s spouse. DOMA and Title 38 resulted in the Veterans Administration denying her application for additional compensation routinely provided to heterosexual married veterans. These benefits would provide Tracey additional disability compensation. It would also allow Maggie to be eligible for the benefits provided to spouses of veterans, such as monthly compensation if the veteran dies from a service-connected disease or disability.
A video detailing how unconstitutional laws such as DOMA and Title 38 harm veterans and their families can be viewed at http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/news/doj-says-it-will-not-defend-law-denying-spousal-benefits-to-veterans-in-same-sex-m.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, see www.splcenter.org