What the DOMA Decision Does and Doesn't Mean for Gay Marriage

Illustration for article titled What the DOMA Decision Does and Doesn't Mean for Gay Marriage

As you have perhaps heard, Supreme Court has done something about gay marriage! This is a big deal, because for some reason a vocal group of heterosexuals have prevented gay people from getting married, even though us straights aren’t even using the dang institution for anything! Rude! After a rough week of ass-backwards decision-making, you may have felt a great deal of fear surrounding today’s gay marriage opinions. Don’t you fret! I’m here to explain.


The day began with the ladies of the Court swinging by the cleaners to pick up their gayest jabots. Justice Kennedy laced up his equality sneakers. Justice Breyer picked at his fingernails a little bit, knowing no one would notice because who cares about Justice Breyer. Meanwhile, the conservative justices remained deep below the earth, making sacrificial offerings to their dark gods, cackling horribly as the black smoke consumed them.

Then it was decision time! There were two gay marriage cases in front of the Court this term. The justices ruled on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) first. At issue in this case was whether the federal government is allowed to define “marriage” as between one man and one woman. Nope! Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that such a definition violates the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment. Are you wondering whether or not that’s huge? The answer is YES. That is HUGE.

The Court didn’t have to get into a discussion of what rights are benefits are owed to gay couples. They didn’t need to repeatedly hammer home the point that DOMA is a tool of inequality. But they did it anyway. As a general matter, individual states have the right to regulate “domestic relations” (marriage and family)—this is why you get your marriage license from your state, not the U.S. government. But with DOMA, the federal government was getting all up in the business of states that had defined marriage to include same-sex couples. These states conferred “recognition, dignity, and protection” on to married gay couples. DOMA, on the other hand, injured those couples by refusing to acknowledge the state-sanctioned validity of their marriages. And that, said your Supreme Court of the United States, is unconstitutional.

To be clear, the Court has held only that the federal government cannot deny recognition or benefits to legally valid marriages. The Court has not created an absolute constitutional right to marriage. What does this mean? It means you can get gay-married in any of the thirteen states (plus Washington, D.C.) that allow it and you are thereafter entitled to swim in the same sea of federal bennies as us heteros.

This is the most exciting part about the DOMA decision—before today, the federal government denied thousands of benefits to gay couples, like federal tax, Social Security, and pension benefits. DOMA also excluded gay couples from immigration benefits—like the ability to sponsor a foreign-born spouse’s green card. As a result, a number of gay couples were separated when their partners were either deported or forced to leave the country due to an expired visa. That bullshit is officially over. Today. No more deporting people’s married foreign-born lesbian aunties, you guys! Hands off our gay Colombian fiancés!


After deciding on DOMA (and after Scalia droned on for what felt like hours about how gross he thinks gay people are), the Court issued its decision in the Prop 8 case. This one was a little underwhelming. Like the affirmative action case, the Court ultimately decided not to decide—they ruled that the group defending Prop 8 had no legal right to do so. What does this mean? Well, no one’s really sure, but it looks like the state of California is barred from enforcing Prop 8. In other words, the state cannot deny marriage licenses to gay couples—so start booking your rustic wine country nuptials now. This is very exciting for gay couples in California who want to get married, but the Court’s decision doesn’t have much of an impact outside of that state. Sorry, everybody else.

There you have it! You may now return to sensually dancing in the streets. Thank you, Supreme Court, giving us a reason to celebrate after the awful emotional rollercoaster that was this week. Even though racial minorities will probably never vote again (UGGGGGHHHHH), I’ll sleep soundly tonight knowing that John Boehner (who spent $3 million in federal tax money defending DOMA) is off somewhere crying into a pillow. I drink your tears, you monster.


Meagan Hatcher-Mays is a recent graduate of Washington University Law School in Saint Louis. She does a significant amount of yelling on Twitter.


Image via Brendan Hoffman/Getty.



Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but a lawyer friend shared this with me regarding the Prop 8 ruling. There's still a very long way to go.


If any Jezzie lawyers want to share additional light, and make it so that I can continue to wholeheartedly celebrate, it'd be much appreciated.