This post was originally published on the National Women’s Law Center’s blog.
Written by Colette Irving, NWLC Intern; Emily Martin, NWLC Vice President and General Counsel; and Lauren Hartz, NWLC Intern.
Today, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which provided that only a marriage between a man and woman would be recognized under federal law. The Court found that this provision of DOMA violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. This decision is historic in its recognition that the Constitution provides important protection against discrimination against same-sex relationships.
Moreover, this ruling will have a huge practical impact, providing access to important benefits previously denied to same-sex couples. As the Court wrote, “By its great reach, DOMA touches many aspects of married and family life, from the mundane to the profound.” The practical impact of this victory is particularly significant for women. Women make up about 53 percent of LGBT adults and 51 percent of same-sex couples, and women in same-sex couples are more likely than men to marry their partners. In fact, the Williams Institute found that 62 percent of same-sex couples who married or acquired some other type of formal legal status were female, in the eight states for which data is available.
Because women are more likely than men to be poor, female same-sex couples are at particular risk of financial instability. The Williams Institute compiled data from the 2000 Census and concluded that female same-sex couples face poverty at a rate of 6.9 percent. That rate is 4.0 percent for male same-sex couples and 5.4 percent for different sex couples [PDF]. Further, LGBT women are more likely than men to become parents and LGBT parents are more likely to live close to poverty. In striking down DOMA, and granting married same-sex couples access to federal benefits that provide increased financial stability, the Supreme Court has made it easier for these women, and all married same-sex couples, to make ends meet.
Twelve states give same-sex couples the freedom to marry, and approximately one-fifth of the U.S. population lives in a state that provides this freedom to marry or recognizes out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples. Here are just a few of the benefits and legal protections married women in same-sex relationships living in these states should expect to access:
- Social Security: Certain benefits are available to the spouses, surviving spouses, and divorced spouses of workers covered by Social Security. Because of DOMA, in order to receive those benefits, spouses had to be different [PDF] sex spouses legally married in their state. While we may have to wait to see exactly how the federal government will proceed in implementing the decision today, all couples whose marriages are legally recognized in the state where they live should be able to receive these benefits.
- Tax on Employer-Provided Health Benefits: Health insurance premiums paid by an employer for an employee and her spouse are usually excluded from that employee’s gross income. That means the employee does not pay taxes on the amount her employer contributes. Because of DOMA, same-sex spouses could not avail themselves of this tax benefit [PDF], which could mean $1,000 more paid in taxes [PDF] each year for these families. Now, all employees who are legally married in the state in which they live should be able to exclude these contributions from their income for federal tax purposes.
- FMLA Leave: The Family and Medical Leave Act entitles employees to job-protected leave to care for children, spouses, and parents. DOMA has prevented same-sex married couples from taking FMLA leave to care for each other, even when they live in states that recognize their marriages. By striking down DOMA, the Supreme Court makes FMLA available to these couples.
- Federal Employees Health Benefits: The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program provides health insurance to federal employees and members of their family, including their spouse and children. DOMA denied this insurance coverage to same-sex spouses of federal employees. The Supreme Court’s decision means that the federal government will provide health coverage to same-sex spouses whose home states recognize their marriages.
- Immigration: Family unification is the cornerstone of our nation’s immigration policy. The Immigration and Naturalization Act allows United States citizens to petition for their children, spouses, and parents to be classified as “immediate relatives,” making them eligible for an immigrant visa and lawful permanent residence in this country. DOMA changed the federal government’s longstanding practice of looking to the law of the state where the marriage occurred to define spouse. This prevented gay and lesbian citizens from sponsoring their foreign partners for immigration benefits even when they were legally married under the law of the state where the marriage occurred. The Court’s decision restores this critical opportunity to bi-national same-sex couples.
The Court’s historic decision has tremendous significance for millions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Americans in affirming their right to equal protection under the law. This victory is important not only for its symbolism but also for its real-world impact. Now many same-sex married couples can access these critical federal benefits on equal footing.