LGBT Americans and their allies across the country celebrated Monday what has been lauded as a victory for the same-sex movement — the Supreme Court rejected challenges to same-sex marriage becoming legal in 11 states. But by deciding not to take a case, the court's inaction comes at a major cost.
In the 20 states with same-sex marriage bans still on the books, several thousand couples are still unable to get married. For many of those same-sex couples, this is not a simple matter of waiting to be legally recognized. They need marriage rights, and the need them immediately.
Unfortunately, the urgency of the situation appears completely lost on the nation's highest court.
The Supreme Court may have missed a golden opportunity to hear one of multiple appeals, choosing the path of least resistance by letting the lower courts' decisions stand, which could be seen as an exercise of judicial restraint. However in doing so, the court indefinitely delayed conferring civil rights on millions of Americans who are still hoping and waiting for the government to formally recognize their love. Many of these couples live in states where numerous lawmakers, court judges and a majority of voters oppose same-sex marriage.
From a judicial standpoint, the inaction wasn't surprising. According to NBC News, more than 80 cases have been filed since the Supreme Court's historic pair of rulings to defeat the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California's Proposition 8. Many legal experts expected the court to take up at least one of the cases deferred Monday, but SCOTUSblog notes that the court routinely denies hearing cases where there's no conflict between lower court decisions.
Still, justice delayed means justice remains denied.
There's many essential rights tied to marriage, from the ability to visit your spouse in a hospital, to special tax breaks, to shared insurance and retirement benefits and, should your significant other pass away, being able to claim an inheritance from their estate — issues that arose in Edie Windsor's case challenging DOMA before the court.
According to a report last week from the Movement Advancement Project and the Center for American Progress, there's a huge financial cost to same-sex couples who desire legal recognition, but are banned because of institutionalized homophobia.
The report showed that same-sex couples raising children in states where gay marriage is illegal lose an average of nearly $9,000 in household income, a considerable financial gap. This gap largely stems from a lack of legal protections, an essential resource of life in states that still lack employment protections, discriminate in housing, credit or even suffer from exclusionary practices in the health care industry. And that's on top of dealing with the fact LGBT people are often treated as second-class citizens for no valid reason.
Indeed, all of the court-mediated marriage battles raise a vital question most people, including many LGBT advocates, either don't consider or choose to ignore: Why are these supposedly "vital" civil rights tied to marriage contracts in the first place?
It's clear that the government privileges a so-called traditional family model, where a man and a woman come together to form a household, in which they may or may not raise children. But queer people in America — and even some of their straight counterparts — are living testaments to the reality that the makeup of families have changed radically over time, with networks of blood relatives and "chosen families" of trusted friends functioning as support systems for children and adults alike. It may be worth examining how the government can create legal pathways for recognizing all non-traditional family structures, or get out of the business of defining "marriage" and "family" once and for all.
Regardless of one's views on the evolving definition of family, there are clear disparities that can and should be addressed in the meantime. Until the Supreme Court intervenes, or states get their act together and legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states, thousands of loving couples and families across America will continue suffering the consequences of one of the country's most discriminatory double standards.