Without DOMA, Massachusetts Marriages Are Finally on Equal Footing

The Supreme Court's decision at last casts our same-sex marriages as equal.

Perhaps you were under the impression that because Massachusetts recognized same-sex marriage, wedded gay couples enjoyed the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts. Until today, they didn’t. As Attorney General Martha Coakley wrote in a petition to the Supreme Court last year, the federal Defense of Marriage Act “takes away our state’s right to extend marriage equality to all couples.” Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriages in 2004, and it wanted those marriages to be on equal footing, but it was limited in how much it could do because of federal law.

Without federal recognition of the marriages that Massachusetts decided to legalize, gay couples faced myriad ways, large and small, that their marriages weren’t equal. They had to file multiple tax returns to account for their uncertain marital status. They were ineligible for some federally funded programs, even those administered by the state. If one of them wasn’t an American citizen … tough luck.

But today, the Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, in a decision that focused on these very headaches. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said [PDF]:

DOMA’s principal effect is to identify and make unequal a subset of state-sanctioned marriages. It contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not others, of both rights and responsibilities, creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State. It also forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect.

And thus:

DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.

So where are we now? SCOTUS Blog writes: “What this means, in plain terms, is that same-sex couples who are legally married will be entitled to equal treatment under federal law—with regard to, for example, income taxes and Social Security benefits.”

On MSNBC, retired U.S. Congressman Barney Frank, himself recently married, put it in personal terms: “Jim and I will now get federal legal rights.” (He was also in fine form, noting, “It’s been nearly 10 years since Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. None, zero of the predictions of negative effects have come true,” and, “I have yet to encounter a heterosexual man so moved by Jim and I that they left their wives.” Never change, Barney.)

Nearly ten years later, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, Massachusetts has the right to decide who is eligible for all the rights and legal dealings that come with marriage. In a separate decision on Proposition 8, the Supreme Court effectively paved the way for legalized gay marriage in California, and there too, couples will benefit from the absence of DOMA. The Supreme Court’s actions today aren’t as sweeping as they could have been. The court could have found a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in all 50 states. But for those who live in states that have already acknowledged that right, life just got better.