When the Supreme Court struck down the material portions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), there was nationwide coverage of the, clearly historic, changes being made. However, while it is easy to understand the substance of the Court’s decision, it’s impact is not as clear. This is particularly true in the state of Missouri, where we have a definition of marriage, as between one man and one woman, enshrined in our state’s constitution. In order to understand all the potential ramifications, we’ll start off by looking at the DOMA case itself, U.S. v. Windsor, discuss what it will (and won’t) mean for Missourians, take a look at what might be coming up next in same-sex marriage litigation, and talk about some practical steps that all Missourians in same-sex relationships should think about.
Hit the jump for all the ‘ding-dong the constitutionally unsound federal definition of marital couples is dead’ details…
The facts in Windsor are very sympathetic. Two women were lawfully married in a ceremony in Canada and, generally, marriages in foreign countries are valid in the U.S. Two years later, one of the women died and the other sought to claim the surviving spouse exemption to the estate taxes due on her partner’s estate. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the definition of “spouse” explicitly excluded a same-sex individual. Therefore, the Internal Revenue Service denied the claim and assessed over $350,000 in taxes against the estate. The surviving woman filed suit against the IRS, claiming that the definition required by DOMA violated the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The District Court agreed with the woman, as did the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and the matter was appealed to the Supreme Court (there were also a number of bizarre procedural issues that are beyond the scope of this post but include the refusal of the Department of Justice to defend DOMA and intervention by a group of U.S. Representatives).
The Supreme Court began by looking at the history of same-sex marriage both in New York and across the nation, noting that 12 states and the District of Columbia have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples. The court then analyzed the long history of Federal deference to “state-law policy decisions with respect to domestic relations,” noting that States have traditionally had the right to define marital rights. The court noted that DOMA sought to infringe on this right and did so with the “purpose and effect of disapproval of [the class of same-sex couples].” The court referenced the legislative history that accompanied the passage of DOMA to demonstrate it’s purpose to “identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.” The Court then held that because the sole purpose of DOMA was to deprive one group of citizens of a right available to others, it was unconstitutional.
Windsor and Missouri
The first thing to understand about what Windsor means for Missouri residents is what Windsor does not mean. The Court is clear that it’s holding does not affect any state statutes or constitutions that prohibit the recognition of same-sex marriages. Therefore, Missouri’s definition of marriage as being between one man and one women will remain in effect. However, there is a very good chance that there will soon be challenges to these statutes and constitutions because of strong language from Windsor that seems to imply that these provisions could be unconstitutional much like DOMA (and in fact such a lawsuit has already been filed in Pennsylvania). For this reason Windsor may actually have been more of a starting gun for same-sex marriage litigation, rather than the finish line.
While Missouri’s definition remains in effect, the Windsor decision does apply to all federal benefits as well as all federal employees regardless of where the individual is located. Therefore, even if a same-sex couple is living in Missouri, if they have a valid marriage certificate from another state they will receive all of the rights and benefits of an opposite-sex married couple when dealing with the federal government. The most obvious federal system that everyone interacts with annually is the IRS through tax filings, same-sex marriages will now be able to file jointly. Additionally, individuals who receive food stamps, Social Security, or housing assistance may now have their same-sex spouse considered. Keep in mind that many of the agencies responsible for these programs are just beginning to adapt to the end of DOMA so it may take them some time to be ready.
The individuals who will feel the largest impact are individuals who are employed by the federal government, either through a local office of a federal agency or, more likely, the military. Because the only control of who receives benefits through these positions is the federal government, and DOMA was the only restriction, same-sex spouses of these individuals will also begin to receive extended benefits. This can mean coverage under health, dental, or life insurance policies that weren’t available before to survivorship benefits and base-living privileges for military spouses. Again, the enactment of these changes may takes some time so be patient.
The effects of the Windsor decision are sure to continue reverberating not only in the courts but also in the homes of your local town.