Married gay and lesbian couples will soon enjoy the same federal benefits as their straight married peers, thanks to the the Supreme Court’s decision on Wednesday to overturn part of the Defense of Marriage Act. The court ruled in favor of New York resident Edith Windsor, 83, the lead plaintiff on the case.
“By seeking to injure the very class New York seeks to protect, DOMA violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government,” Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
For Windsor, the ruling means she will get back the $363,053 in federal estate taxes that she was required to pay after her wife’s death. For New Yorkers in same-sex marriages and residents of other states where same-sex marriage is legal, Wednesday’s ruling represents access to hundreds of federal programs and benefits. (According to the most recent count from the U.S. General Accounting Office, there are 1,138 federal rights and benefits related to marriage.)
Gay couples who are married will now be eligible for Social Security survivor benefits and for veterans, spousal and widow benefits, too. Married same-sex couples will be able to file joint federal income taxes. If one spouse falls ill, the other will be able take time off work to care for them under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Federal employees in same-sex marriages will have spousal rights to pension benefits and can put their spouses on their health insurance.
“These are things that lesbian and gay married couples, we’ve been paying into the system and paying our fair share, but have not received the protection back from what we’ve paid into,” said John Lewis, legal director for the advocate group Marriage Equality USA. “It’s very significant to be able to receive that.”
The ruling is also significant for some members of New York’s immigrant population. American gay and lesbians will now be able to apply for green cards for their immigrant spouses. Straight couples have long been able to apply for a green card if one spouse was an American and the other an immigrant. Lewis said that bi-national same-sex couples and their families were sometimes forced into exile if one spouse could not get a resident visa.
These and other benefits will go into effect shortly for same-sex married couples.
“Legally married couples in states that allow same-sex marriage are good to go,” Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, told NPR. “The court’s decision will be final in 25 days, and they should start seeing all the same federal rights and benefits.” Currently there are 13 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized same-sex marriages.
Amber-Monique Johnson, 24, a lesbian activist and Brooklyn resident said that for her, the societal shift represented by the decision was just as important to her as the legal benefits it provided.
“I feel accepted,” Johnson said, “and I feel that finally the government is protecting us.”