Whether the Defense of Marriage Act violates equal protection by denying married gay couples recognition under federal law.
On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that section three of the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA) is unconstitutional and that the federal government cannot discriminate against married lesbian and gay couples for the purposes of determining federal benefits and protections.
Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer shared their lives together as a couple in New York City for 44 years. After a 40 year engagement they were finally married in Canada in May 2007. Two years later, Thea passed away, after living for decades with multiple sclerosis, which led to progressive paralysis.
When Thea died, the federal government refused to recognize their marriage and taxed Edie's inheritance from Thea as though they were strangers. Under federal tax law, a spouse who dies can leave her assets, including the family home, to the other spouse without incurring estate taxes.
Ordinarily, whether a couple is married for federal purposes depends on whether they are considered married in their state. New York recognized Edie and Thea's marriage, but because of a federal law called the "Defense of Marriage Act," or DOMA, the federal government refuses to treat married same-sex couples, like Edie and Thea, the same way as other married couples.
With representation by the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, Edie is challenging the constitutionality of DOMA and seeking a refund of the estate tax she was unfairly forced to pay. Edie alleges that DOMA violates the Equal Protection principles of the U.S. Constitution because it recognizes existing marriages of heterosexual couples, but not of same-sex couples, despite the fact that New York State treats all marriages the same.
On October 18, 2012, the Second Circuit issued an opinion striking down the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" in the ACLU and NYCLU's Windsor v. United States case. The court decided that when government discriminates against lesbians and gay men, the discrimination should be presumed to be unconstitutional and the government has to have a very good reason for the discrimination. This is the first federal appeals court to decide that a higher standard of review applies to sexual orientation discrimination. On December 7, 2012, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Edie Windsor's challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Oral arguments took place on March 27, 2013.