Breaking News from SCOTUS

Thea Clara Spyer and Edith WindsorGreetings, Beloved!

First, I give thanks to God for the wonderful news we received today, from the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) regarding the resolution of two landmark cases which directly impact our community! I’ve heard that there are questions out there about exactly what happened, so it is my pleasure to offer this explanation, mostly in plain English and with a minimum amount of “legalese!”

The DOMA Case - U.S. v. Windsor

The (so-called) Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is a federal law, passed by Congress, in response to the legalization of same-gender marriage in several states. In pertinent part, it provides that the U.S. government would not recognize same-gender marriages. The effect was to deprive same-gender couples who are lawfully married under the law of their state of federal benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples - things like being able to file joint federal income taxes, acquiring a spouse’s social security benefits, federal employees being recognized as married for insurance purposes, etc.

The named plaintiff in the case, Edith Windsor, was married (in Canada) to Thea Spyer, her partner of over 40 years. The couple’s home state, New York, recognizes marriages that are legal in other jurisdictions, so they were legally married in New York. Because of DOMA, when Ms. Spyer died, Ms. Windsor was required to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes, which she would not have to pay if the federal government treated her as heterosexual widows are treated.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court declared DOMA unconstitutional...

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court declared DOMA unconstitutional on the basis that the federal government’s different treatment of same-gender legally married couples violates Equal Protection principles under the 5th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The effect is to extend all federal benefits that are tied to marriage to legally married same-gender couples precisely as they are enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. This is huge and wonderful, both for its direct and indirect effects. It immediately requires the federal government to recognize all married couples as such, without regard to same or different gender. It also establishes precedent that sets the stage for inevitable future cases, and signals that marriage equality will be the nation-wide law of the land eventually.

The Prop 8 Case - Hollingsworth v. Perry

...the Court had a real opportunity, here, to settle the marriage equality question once and for all...

The good news is the result in the Prop 8 case was also favorable as far as it went. The less good news is that the Court had a real opportunity, here, to settle the marriage equality question once and for all, nationally; in the same way that Brown v. Board of Education settled the school segregation question nationally. But the Court declined to do so, because it held that the appellants in the case never had “standing” (or a legal right) to bring the case to court in the first place. So the case was dismissed, without a decision about the issue of marriage equality. Overall, it is still an outcome for which to be grateful, as it also leaves the door wide open for future litigation that seems certain to resolve ultimately in favor of justice.

In 2008, the California Supreme Court held that state laws that denied same-gender couples the right to marry violated the California constitution. A few months later, the people of CA voted for Proposition 8, which was an amendment to CA’s constitution that restricted marriage in CA to one man and one woman. Challenges to Prop 8 were filed in state and federal court. In the federal court, it was held that Prop 8 violated the U.S. Constitution. By this time, there were new elected officials in office in CA. Neither the Governor nor the Attorney General was interested in pursuing the matter further. So a group of private citizens were permitted to intervene to carry the case forward and defend Prop 8. It was this private group that appealed the federal court’s decision to invalidate Prop 8. That is what raised the question: Does a group of private citizens have standing to defend a state constitutional amendment in court, when the state officials (whose job it would normally be) decline to do so? Today the U.S. Supreme Court said, “no.” The private group did not have standing to do what CA’s Administration declined to do.

The effect of the decision is to allow the federal court’s ruling invalidating Prop 8 to stand; thus restoring the right to marry in the state of CA only. Because the U.S. Supreme Court did not reach the merits of the case, we did not get a decision about whether a state violates the U.S. Constitution when it denies the right to marry to same-gender couples.

So, in summary, Windsor gave us exactly what we wanted. Hollingsworth could have been better, but it also could have been much worse.

The Voting Rights Case - Shelby County v. Holder

As I discuss these cases, I cannot neglect to mention Shelby County v. Holder, the decision announced yesterday in which the Court cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. Briefly stated, the VRA provided that certain areas of the country with a history of discrimination in voting designed to disenfranchise minority voters could not make any changes in their voting laws, policies, or procedures without pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice. Passed in 1965, it was originally to remain in effect for five years; but the law had been extended over the years because of ongoing evidence of voter discrimination. Yesterday, the Court held that the provision that sets out the formula for determining which areas are covered by the VRA is unconstitutional on the grounds that the formula is “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.” Writing for the majority (in a 5-4 vote), Chief Justice John Roberts stated that “our country has changed,” implying there is no longer a need for federal oversight of state voting laws and procedures. Really? Barely a couple of hours after the Court’s decision was announced, the Attorney General of Texas announced that a law which had previously been blocked by the Department of Justice would take effect immediately. The new law requires voters to show photo ID in order to be able to vote in Texas. Can you guess who will be most impacted by that? Can you possibly doubt that the foreseeable impact is intended?

I wish my joy could be pure and untainted by sadness and anger at the bad news.

I want, as much as anyone, to rejoice heartily about the good news we have heard. I wish my joy could be pure and untainted by sadness and anger at the bad news. Herein lies the difficulty and frustration of living in the intersection of multiple oppressions. In the last 48 hours, on one hand, a very good day for my LGBT self. On the other, a really bad day for my African-American self. And what is my Christian self to feel? Should I rejoice with those LGBT’s who are rejoicing today? Or should I weep with those LGBT’s in states without marriage equality whose situations were not changed by these Court decisions? Or should I wail with proponents of racial justice who know what lies just ahead as minority voter suppression machines are revving up for new assaults on our fundamental right to vote?

I am happy, in a subdued kind of way. I am also sad, but not despairing. I have no acceptable choice (for me) but to cling to hope that what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said is true: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” That fits right in with the song I’ve been hearing in my head all day - Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” May it be so, in the name of Jesus. And may God find us all faithful to do whatever we can to hasten that day.