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This week 237 years ago, our nation’s forefathers declared, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” That maxim in the Declaration of Independence has echoed throughout history ever since, but did so a little more loudly last week when the Supreme Court struck down and dismissed federal and state acts that denied equality to married gay and lesbian couples.
In striking down the Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Supreme Court ensured that Somerville residents and those around the country in same-sex marriages will receive the same federal protections as any other married couple. The Supreme Court also dismissed an appeal on the overturning of California’s Proposition 8, which like DOMA treated married gay and lesbian couples as second-class citizens.
At a base level, the DOMA case was about taxation and benefits. Edith Windsor faced a $363,000 tax bill after the death of her wife, Thea Spyer, a bill that no straight woman would face after the death of her spouse, but a burden forced upon Windsor because the federal government did not recognize her marriage, a ceremony that symbolized the 42 years of love and commitment between Windsor and Spyer.
By striking down DOMA’s Section 3, Windsor is plainly treated the same as any other widow, as are married gays and lesbians throughout our country. They have the same access to the more than 1,100 federal protections based on marital status, from access to Social Security survivor benefits to using family medical leave to care for a husband or wife. And no longer will binational couples face separation and live under the threat of a spouse’s deportation because they were denied a green card after their legal marriage was not recognized.
While the Windsor’s case is at a base level about taxation and federal protection, it is obviously about more than that. It is about the inherent worth of people, of our gay and lesbian family members, friends and neighbors. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s repeated use of the word “dignity” in his written opinion is a careful and powerful choice. In a pluralistic society where we celebrate the fact that individuals can hold varying opinions, one thing should unite us: that we are treated equally in the eyes of our government. That no matter our sexual orientation, religious beliefs, ethnicity or otherwise, our country treats each of us the same: as a citizen.
We are nation of laws, not men, an idea enshrined in Massachusetts’ very own Constitution. DOMA existed for no other reason than to explicitly not treat gays and lesbians the same as the rest of our citizens, to “express moral disapproval of homosexuality,” in the exact words of the House Report to Congress. It eschewed rule of law, bypassing state rights, and created a second class of citizens where none existed before. The Supreme Court’s ruling partially undoes that injustice.
The ruling does not mean every married gay couple will get tax breaks. Some may have to pay more. If their children apply for federal student financial aid, they now must list the income of both their parents, instead of treating their parents as if they were divorced as they had been instructed under DOMA, potentially affecting how much they can receive in student aid. But is that not the point? This is not about dollars and cents. It’s about basic equality and fairness. All we want is for our gay and lesbian family members, friends and neighbors to be treated the same as us, and vice versa. No child should have to ask why they need to treat their parents, who have loved and cared for them, as if they’re divorced when filling out a federal student aid application. We should never have to lie about who we are or who our family is.
Ensuring equal treatment under the law for married gay couples is an ongoing battle. Section 2 of DOMA remains law, which allows states to discriminate against gay couples legally married in other states, and 36 states still ban same-sex marriage. Yet the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. said, and with this decision, we saw the arc bend a little more. The pending Respect for Marriage Act would fully repeal all of DOMA. State-by-state, lawful discrimination is crumbling under the light of equality’s truth. As we celebrate the Fourth of July this week, we look forward to when we can celebrate Independence Day knowing that the law secures for the LGBT community the Founding Fathers’ promise of unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.