WASHINGTON – In the wake of today’s ruling finding section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, the Human Rights Campaign is urging the administration to broadly implement the decision, provide guidance to federal agencies and married couples about access to federal rights and benefits, and take whatever further action is necessary to ensure that the largest number of lesbian and gay married couples are able to access the widest array of benefits and protections under federal law.
Same-sex couples who are legally married and live in a marriage equality state should be eligible for the same rights, benefits, and protections afforded to straight married couples, virtually right away. But because the more than 1,100 federal rights and responsibilities of marriage are administered by many different federal agencies – many with different rules about which state’s laws they look to in determining if a marriage is valid – it is possible that legally married lesbian and gay couples living in a state that does not recognize their marriage may not have access to certain benefits, at least for the time being.
"Federal recognition for lesbian and gay couples is a massive turning point for equality, but it is not enough until every family is guaranteed complete access to the protections they need regardless of state borders,” Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin said. “The Administration must take every possible step to ensure this landmark ruling treats every lawfully-married couple across the country with the equality our Constitution guarantees.”
The Human Rights Campaign has conducted an exhaustive review of federal laws and regulations that pertain to marriage and has presented a set of recommendations to the administration to ensure that some families don’t fall through the cracks even with Section 3 of DOMA off the books. Under some of these rules, a federal agency looks at whether the state where a marriage was performed to determine if it is valid – meaning married same-sex couples should be recognized wherever they live. But some agencies’ rules look to whether a couple’s state of residence recognizes their marriage, which could impede recognition of many couples living in states without marriage equality.
HRC and a coalition of LGBT legal and policy groups have also prepared guidance for married same-sex couples about what the Court’s decision may mean for a host of federal rights and benefits, which will be available online today HERE. HRC will work to make sure that all legally married gay couples have access to all the rights and benefits of marriage.
While section 3 of DOMA is gone, parts of the law remain on the books and Congress must act to pass the Respect for Marriage Act to ensure all legal marriages are respected throughout the country. HRC will also be engaging in a public education campaign to highlight the stories of couples who are not fully able to access federal rights and benefits.
Not long after HRC called on the federal government to enact quickly now that DOMA is dead, Griffin said he spoke with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Holder reiterated to Griffin that the Department of Justice will go through a thorough and thoughtful process in order to implement the Supreme Court’s decision today in the Windsor decision regarding the Defense of Marriage Act.
“I applaud the leadership of President Obama and Attorney General Holder in beginning the process to put today’s historic decision into effect. We would not be at this pivotal moment if it had not been for the President’s support and commitment to full equality,” Griffin said. “We are committed to working with the administration to ensure that the greatest number of lesbian and gay couples are afforded the greatest number of federal benefits as quickly as possible. Today’s victory is not complete until every family is guaranteed complete access to the protections they need regardless of state borders.”
In Windsor v. U.S., Edie Windsor challenged section 3 of DOMA which required her to pay $363,000 in estate taxes after her partner and spouse of more than 40 years passed away. If Edie had been married to a man, instead of a woman, it is undisputed that her estate tax bill would have been zero. The Supreme Court decided in her favor ruling DOMA unconstitutional.
Lawfully-married couples living in marriage equality states will soon have equal access to all the federal rights and benefits based on marital status. For married couples living in states without marriage equality, there is less clarity. Even with DOMA out of the way, different federal programs have different rules that determine where an agency looks to decide if a marriage is valid – either place of celebration or place of residence. Most of these rules are policies, regulations or simply practices that the Obama Administration can change through existing processes to ensure that married same-sex couples, wherever they may live, have access to the federal rights and benefits they deserve. Under the current rules and practices, a lawfully-married same-sex couple living in a state that does not recognize their marriage will have access to some federal rights and benefits, but may not immediately have access to many others.