The United States Supreme Court ruled on its most contentious cases of the session today regarding equality under the law for same-sex couples. The first case which had the most sweeping effects was the court’s striking of key provisions of the ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ that was passed by Congress during President Clinton’s administration in 1996. This act cemented the U.S. Government’s position on marriage and denied same-sex spouses any benefits from the government including employment benefits, social security, and tax benefits among others.

800px-United_states_supreme_court_buildingMore specifically, this decision will allow same-sex couples to take advantage of many federal benefits that previously only heterosexual couples could receive. These include filing joint tax returns, tax exemption for healthcare benefits, marital credit for estate taxes, federal government employee spousal benefits, and most importantly, the ability to collect social security from a deceased spouse.

In order to qualify for these newly available benefits, same-sex couples must be married in a state that officially recognises gay marriages. There are currently twelve, actually thirteen, states that have legalised gay marriage. The thirteenth, California, was established today in the second case to be discussed.

This case was decided in a five to four ruling with justices Thomas, Scalia, Alito, and Roberts dissenting. For the dissenters, three different opinions were written. Justice Kennedy wrote the decision for the majority. He wrote that the Defense of Marriage Act treats same-sex and straight couples unequally and ‘violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the federal government.’

The second case regarded ‘Proposition 8’ which was passed in 2008 in California. Prop 8, as it is known, eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry. However, the resulting law was ruled unconstitutional by a California appeals court. The justices ruled to side with the lower court therefore reversing the ballot measure and making gay marriage once again legal in California.

Justice Roberts wrote the opinion for the majority in the five to four decision and argued that the case is specific to California and therefore did not affect the forty nine other states in the country. Many gay rights supporters had hoped that this case may rule a ban on gay marriage in any state to be unconstitutional. Roberts addressed this only by saying that jurisdictional issues over gay marriages may arise in the future and thus make a future case a national issue.

These two cases are the final ones of what has proved to be a very suspenseful judicial season.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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