A great victory for equality
Toby Talbot / AP File Photo
Stacy Jolles, left, and Nina Beck of Burlington were litigants in Vermont’s 1998 landmark civil union case. They say they’re celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down a key section of a federal law denying federal benefits to married gay couples.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court did what Vermont’s first-in-the-nation marriage equality law didn’t have the authority to do: It ruled that the federal government cannot discriminate against legally married same-sex couples. The court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor, the so-called DOMA case, means that gay men and lesbians will now be better able to protect their spouses and their children, because they will finally be included in the federal government’s safety net.
It means that Edie Windsor, the woman who challenged the Defense of Marriage Act, will get a refund for the huge tax she had to pay to the IRS when Thea, her spouse and partner of 44 years, died (if Edie had been married to a man, the IRS never would have collected the tax).
Vermonters will be helped as well. One of my clients, Candy (not her real name), works in a big-box store. Under DOMA, employers did not have to offer health insurance to the same-sex spouses of their employees, so her employer denied her coverage. Candy and her family were one major illness away from financial ruin; now Candy’s family will have that crucial protection.
Unlike Candy’s boss, many Vermont employers have been voluntarily providing health insurance for their employees’ same-sex spouses for years now. But because of DOMA, gay employees had to pay income tax on the value of that insurance — unlike their heterosexual coworkers, who didn’t have to pay the tax.
I represented another Vermonter (I’ll call her Kathy), whose same-sex spouse was tragically killed in a car accident on her way to work one morning. Her death left Kathy, and their infant son, with unimaginable grief and loss — and financially destitute. Federal Social Security spousal survivor benefits are designed to help financially vulnerable widows, and now those benefits will be available to people like Kathy.
There are more than a thousand protections and preferences that the federal government provides to married couples, and now same-sex married couples will no longer be denied those protections. For example, gay and lesbian Vermonters who are married to citizens of other countries will be able to sponsor their spouses for legal residency, just like other bi-national couples; they will no longer have to choose between their spouse and their country.
Vermonters who work for the Postal Service or Homeland Security or other federal agencies will be able to take paid leave to care for an ill same-sex spouse, and those spouses can receive federal spousal pension benefits that had been denied them under DOMA. Spouses of military service members will finally have access to military housing and health insurance. And same-sex couples in Vermont will be able to file joint federal tax returns — and reap the tax savings or pay the additional taxes — just like all other married couples.
The harm caused by DOMA was much more than financial. It also sent a powerful cultural message: that same-sex couples were less important, less valued and less worthy of respect. The tears of joy on the faces of so many people this week reflected a realization that, finally, the federal government recognizes that gay people are as committed to caring for their families as others, and that they deserve equal treatment under the law.
With the Supreme Court’s ruling this week on DOMA and the so-called Prop 8 case (which allows same-sex couples to marry in California), a third of the U.S. population now lives in states with full marriage equality. Polls show that a majority of Americans support marriage for same-sex couples. There is much work left to do (many states still don’t grant the freedom to marry to their same-sex residents). But we have reached a turning point, and momentum is growing for full marriage equality throughout the country.
The court’s rulings were the result of years of hard work by so many, including the thousands of Vermonters who began the national dialogue about marriage equality way back in 2000, when most of the rest of the country had never heard of the idea. I’m grateful for the many straight allies — legislators, clergy members, friends and fellow lawyers, among others — who lent their support in so many ways. And I’m incredibly proud to live in a state where so many gay men and lesbians had the courage to “come out” and tell their stories to their friends, families, neighbors and co-workers — it made all the difference.
With the demise of DOMA, many families in Vermont and elsewhere have been helped, and no families have been hurt. Our communities, our states and our nation are all stronger as a result. We are a small state, but we started something very big, and very good, for the rest of the country.
Susan Murray is a lawyer with Langrock Sperry & Wool in Burlington. She was co-counsel in the case that led to the passage of civil unions in Vermont in 2000. She also testified against the Defense of Marriage Act in Congress.