Jonathan Higbee's picture

Whatever SCOTUS Rules, Full Federal Equality Has To Start With Obama

The Supreme Court is likely to rule this month on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. Though most legal scholars assume that the oral proceedings back in March signal the court will rule against DOMA, analysts and political experts say that the Obama Administration has its work cut out to make federal marriage rights for same-sex couples a reality. 

The New York Times reports:

Whether gay couples actually get those benefits would depend on where they live — and how vigorously President Obama seeks to change the legal language that determines whether a couple is married in the eyes of the federal government.

For Mr. Obama, who appears eager to have his legacy defined in part by the advancement of civil rights for gay Americans, his administration’s actions after the ruling may be as important as the ruling itself. A spokesman for the president declined to comment on the issue but hinted that the administration might be preparing to act.

“As the court has not yet ruled, it would be premature to speculate about what may happen after a decision is issued,” said Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman. “The administration will, of course, be prepared to address any implications of the court’s decision.”

Activists, however, are warning gay couples not to expect that federal benefits would arrive immediately, because government agencies vary widely in how they determine whether a couple is legally married.

Some federal agencies, like the I.R.S. and the Social Security Administration, make that determination by looking to the state where a couple lives. Even with the 1996 law overturned, those agencies would deny benefits to gay couples who live in one of the 38 states that do not allow same-sex marriage.

In such cases, the administration would have to change its standard — for example, by defining marriage based on whether a couple is legally married in any state — in order to extend benefits to same-sex couples.

As we all unfortunately know by now, there are 1,100 benefits ascribed to federal marriage that same-sex couples currently can't access (but opposite sex couples can). If SCOTUS makes us proud sometime this month, it will just be another bold-weighted bullet point in our long, winding road to full equality.