On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that section three of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) is unconstitutional and that the federal government cannot discriminate against married lesbian and gay couples for the purposes of determining federal benefits and protections.
On the way to the DOMA press conference, James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s LGBT Project, says a few words about what DOMA means and what’s next for LGBT rights and for the ACLU.
– Hi, folks. James Esseks here from the LGBT Project at the ACLU. Today’s a fabulous day and a very busy day. We just won the– our case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act in the U.S. Supreme Court. They ruled it unconstitutional this morning. The ruling came in the ACLU’s case on behalf of Edie Windsor, an 84-year-old widow who was forced to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes that she wouldn’t have had to pay if she had been a straight widow instead of a lesbian widow. It’s a great day because we get rid of this law– this DOMA law. What DOMA means is, it requires the federal government to treat married same-sex couples as though their marriages had never happened. For Edie, it meant that estate tax problem. For thousands of other married same-sex couples all across the country, it means other kinds of problems for them too. It means that they can’t get health care for their spouses, they can’t get Social Security survivor benefits, they can’t get veteran’s benefits, they can’t sponsor their spouses for a green card, and the list of harms goes on and on. With today’s decision, we have a very simple rule: if you’re married under state law, you’re married for federal purposes too. And that’s a monumental change. The other reason that it’s a really big deal is that DOMA is the last federal law that explicitly requires discrimination against gay people. It used to be that in our country, there were many laws like that. There was a law that said that the federal government couldn’t hire gay people. And, in fact, in the ’50s, there were purges of the federal workforce to get rid of people like me. There were– there was a law that said that any company that did business with the federal government couldn’t hire gay people. Until 1991, U.S. immigration law said that gay people couldn’t come into the country. And, of course, until 2010, under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law, the statute said, you know, gay people and lesbian and bisexual people couldn’t openly serve in the United States military. One by one, the U.S. has gotten rid of each of those federal laws that requires discrimination against gay people. DOMA was the last one, and today’s decision gets rid of the core of that last law. So today isn’t just the end of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. It’s the end of official federal discrimination against gay people. That’s a big deal. So the other thing that I want to talk to you folks about is, well, what’s next. I mean, today we get rid of DOMA and we get federal respect and recognition for the existing marriages of same-sex couples. But, of course, we still live in a country where not all same-sex couples can get married. In another decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court said that it didn’t have jurisdiction to rule on the constitutionality of Prop 8. Sounds like a defeat. It’s actually a wonderful victory as well, because what it means is, California will start allowing same-sex couples to marry again, because the ruling that stands is the trial court ruling from August of 2010 in the Perry case. That’s a big deal too. But what we need going forward is, we need more states that allow same-sex couples to marry. And the ACLU has a plan. We’re gonna be working with our coalition partners in New Jersey and Illinois and Hawaii and some other states to push through marriage legislation. But passing marriage laws in the state legislatures isn’t gonna get us to where we need to be. What we also need to do is to take back some of those ugly, hateful state constitutional amendments that exclude same-sex couples from marriage. And we’re gonna do that too. Starting in Oregon in 2014 with our coalition partners in the state and nationally, we’re gonna put a ballot measure on that’s gonna repeal that awful, restrictive marriage amendment in the state constitution and give us the freedom to marry. We’re also looking to get a “repeal and replace” amendment on the ballot in Nevada in 2016, and we’re looking with our state and national coalition partners to figure out where else we can go. So there’s a lot more to come, but today is a day to give thanks, to give thanks to Edie Windsor for the incredible devotion and love that she and Thea Spyer showed to each other over 44 years and for the courage and determination that Edie exhibited in fighting this clear injustice and bringing us to this wonderful day.