For the past several months, I along with millions of Americans have been anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court of the United States’ (SCOTUS) decision regarding whether or not same-sex couples will have equal protection under the law, specifically regarding the right to marriage equality with the same federal benefits afforded to opposite-sex couples. Today, in a 5-4 ruling, SCOTUS decided to disband the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that restricts the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples. This is progress, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
So, what exactly does this ruling mean? It means the U.S. Constitution does not endorse same-sex marriage, but it cannot punish or overburden same-sex couples who are legally married in their state. For example, a same-sex couple who is married in New York is now entitled to both federal and state marriage benefits because same-sex marriage is legal at the state level, but the federal law will not extend marriage privileges to same-sex couples in Texas or other states where same-sex marriage is illegal. Thus, there are still overarching civil rights issues that plague gays and lesbians throughout the U.S., including discrimination and stigmatization based on who they love.
The ruling was prompted by legal deadlines in two federal cases in Connecticut and New York where same-sex married couples argued that DOMA’s ban on federal benefits afforded to people in gay marriages violated the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of equal treatment for all. In my opinion, the SCOTUS decision is only a partial victory for the gay rights movement. While a landmark achievement, it is limited to the protection of these rights for legally married gay men and women in the handful of states that recognize same-sex civil unions. Certainly, the cultural and legal landscapes have dramatically changed in the 15 years since the U.S. Congress passed DOMA, but it is unfortunate that the federal law is overriding shifts in traditional culture and still denies millions of Americans their marriage rights depending on the state in which they reside.
Perhaps today’s SCOTUS decision would have been a slam dunk victory for the gay rights movement if all 50 states were mandated to allow same-sex marriage with full protection under the law. Since that was not the outcome, I am confident this important cultural issue will continue to gain momentum and the movement will push onward until there are equal rights in every state, and around the world.
Zing Shaw is vice president, diversity & inclusion at Edelman U.S.
Image by Ted Eytan.