Leaders of Rehoboth Beach's LGBT community celebrated a landmark day for gay rights with the U.S. Supreme Court’s striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Steve Elkins, cofounder of CAMP Rehoboth, said he was not surprised by the ruling, but was excited to see it come about.
“We were very optimistic,” he said.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, said the Defense of Marriage Act, commonly known as DOMA, was unconstitutional because it denied married gay couples the same benefits as straight couples under federal law. The ruling allows gay married couples the same federal tax advantages and pension rights as other married couples.
Elkins said the key victory is that married gay couples are now eligible for federal benefits for married couples disallowed by DOMA, such as survivor benefits, retirement benefits and tax benefits for inheritances.
“We can protect families, partners and children the same as any other couple,” he said.
The case, United States vs. Windsor, stemmed from the death of New York resident Thea Spyer. Spyer and her wife, Edith Windsor, were married in Canada and had that marriage recognized by the state of New York. When Spyer died, Windsor sought to claim a federal tax exemption, but was barred from doing so by DOMA, which excluded same-sex couples from its definition of marriage. Windsor paid $363,000 in estate taxes and sought a refund, which was denied by the Internal Revenue Service. Windsor sued, claiming DOMA violated the Fifth Amendment's equal protection clause.
In the majority opinion, Kennedy said, "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."
"The Constitution's guarantee of equality must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot justify disparate treatment of that group."
Kennedy said DOMA's principal effect is to identify and make unequal a class of people whose marriages are sanctioned by the states, creating contradictory definitions of marriage.
In that vein, Elkins said, the ruling offers something for both liberals and conservatives: for conservatives in favor of states' rights, it allows the states to determine whether to recognize gay marriages or not, while for those in favor of equality, gay couples will now have the same federal benefits as straight married couples.
Rehoboth Beach Commissioner Patrick Gossett said, “It’s great recognition. This is a positive moving forward for all of us. I’m very excited about it, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Gossett said the ruling now allows states to make their own laws regarding same-sex marriage, and any future legal cases will now have the Supreme Court decision as a model.
“It’s been a long time in coming,” he said.
For local author Fay Jacobs, the decision marked a tremendous birthday present.
“What a gift,” she said. “I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime.”
Like Windsor, Jacobs was married to her partner in Canada and will have her marriage recognized by the state; Delaware passed marriage equality in May.
Delaware legalized civil unions in 2011; those unions will be converted to marriages within a year. The same-sex marriage law takes effect Monday, July 1, and to mark the occasion, Elkins said CAMP Rehoboth will hold its first ceremony that day at 10:30 a.m. with the marriage of Eric Englehart and Chris Beagle.
Delaware’s congressional delegation also applauded the ruling.
“Today’s Supreme Court decisions mark another critical step in our country’s march toward equality,” Congressman John Carney said.
Sen. Chris Coons said in a video released to YouTube, “The decision by the Supreme Court to overturn the law barring same-sex marriage is historic and a testament to how far our nation has come.”
Sen. Tom Carper said overturning DOMA was the right thing to do.
Ruling to strike down DOMA were justices Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Dissent came from Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Besides DOMA, the court also ruled on California's Proposition 8, a ballot initiative which banned same-sex marriage. The initiative was declared unconstitutional, and state officials declined to appeal. In a 5-4 decision, the court held that citizens did not have standing to bring the case when the state itself refused to do so. "A generalized grievance, no matter how sincere, is insufficient to confer standing," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
The ruling effectively lets stand the ruling that Prop 8 was unconstitutional, thus allowing gay marriages in California.
Roberts, Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer and Scalia voted in the majority, while Kennedy, Thomas, Alito and Sotomayor dissented.