In a major win for gay rights advocates, the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act on the grounds that it violated the equal protection rights of same-sex married couples.
In the 5-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that the 1996 law singled out married gay couples for separate treatment under the law. Kennedy, a conservative-leaning justice, was considered the swing justice in the case. The four most conservative justices dissented.
At issue was whether the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violated the rights of married same-sex couples who are treated differently by the federal government than opposite-sex married couples. Under Section 3 of DOMA, which defined marriage for federal purposes as between one man and one woman, same-sex couples were not eligible for more than 1,000 federal benefits and programs. The court did not rule on a separate portion of the law that allows states to choose not to recognize same-sex marriages recognized by other states.
The suit was brought by New York State resident Edith Windsor, who had to pay more than $360,000 in federal estate taxes when her spouse died because though New York recognized her marriage, the federal government did not. The federal district and appellate courts had also ruled in Windsor’s favor and found Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional.
“DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so, it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government,” Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion.
Kennedy also objected to the law on the grounds that it was motivated by animus against gay individuals and questioned whether, on federalism grounds, the court had the right to intrude on a state’s ability to define marriage.
“In determining whether a law is motivated by improper animus or purpose, discriminations of an unusual character especially require careful consideration,” Kennedy wrote. “DOMA cannot survive under these principles.”