A year ago, President Barack Obama made history as the first sitting president to endorse marriage equality for same-sex couples. Soon after, the Department of Defense repealed its policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In January, Washington became the nation’s first state to begin performing same-sex marriages authorized by a popular vote.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court continued our nation’s march toward complete marriage equality by striking down the key section of the Defense of Marriage Act denying equal protection to same-sex couples.
As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote so eloquently in the majority opinion:
“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
The court’s long-awaited ruling has special significance in Washington, and the handful of other states that have legalized same-sex marriages. The federal government will now recognize all lawful marriages in our state, allowing same-sex couples to file joint tax returns and share Social Security and veterans’ benefits.
As Rep. Denny Heck said following the ruling, “All Washington families are now treated equally under the law. Our state and our country have come a long way.”
Heck was one of more than 200 members of Congress who signed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court earlier this year urging them to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. “As a supporter of Referendum 74 last year, I am very pleased and deeply gratified by today’s decision,” he said.
The court’s ruling on the DOMA, and its dismissal of a challenge to California’s gay marriage law, unmistakably hands the issue of marriage equality to individual states. Federal recognition of same-sex marriages only applies to states that have approved marriage equality.
The court did not rule on another provision in the DOMA that says no state has to recognize a gay marriage performed in another state. That means if a same-sex couple married in Washington moves to Idaho, they lose access to federal benefits.
Polls still show Americans evenly divided on the issue of marriage equality, so it’s doubtful that every state will rush to pass same-sex marriage laws as a result of the court’s decision. But that day is coming, though it may take decades to get there.
According to Pew Research, younger voters more readily accept marriage equality. Of those under the age of 32, more than 60 percent accept same-sex couples and their right to marry. That’s a clear sign of where our notions about love and marriage are headed.
State Sen. Ed Murray, who championed the rights of the gay and lesbian community in the Legislature, thanked the “tireless work of countless thousands of determined Americans, both gay and straight. And the people of Washington state helped to lead the way. ... Together we have changed the course of history.”
Washingtonians can be proud to have led the nation in what is being called the civil rights movement of the modern era.