Fifth Amendment: How It Was Crucial in Getting Rid Of DOMA

In a historic victory for gay rights, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday morning in United States v. Windsor that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional in a 5-4 decision split along partisan lines.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, found that DOMA is a violation of the "equal protection" clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

"[It's] no surprise to me that it was struck down," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said just minutes after the ruling was announced.

"This admission by the court that this bill was unconstitutional was a very important decision for our country, for not only what it means in the lives of people, but also it sends a message of not to be frivolous with the issue of discrimination in our country, and that's what this is about: discrimination," she said.

The Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton, defined marriage for legal purposes as the union between a man and a woman as husband and wife. 

Section 3 of the act barred federal benefits for same-sex couples even in states where same-sex marriage is legal. 

The plaintiff in the monumental Supreme Court challenge against DOMA, Edith Windsor, faced the brunt of this discriminatory act. 83-year-old Windsor, who was widowed when her wife Thea Spyer died in 2009, was forced to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes on her partner's estate. She argued that she would have paid no federal state taxes had federal law deemed her marriage the same status as a heterosexual marriage and decided to sue the government after the Internal Revenue Service denied her refund request for the $363,000 in federal estate taxes she paid. 

Windsor's experience, however, was not an isolated case.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, "DOMA singles out lawfully married same-sex couples for unequal treatment under federal law, allowing states to refuse recognition of valid civil marriages and denying same-sex couples more than 1,100 federal benefits and protections." 

The DOMA opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, declared that the 1996 law violated the Fifth Amendment's equal-protection provision.

According to the Fifth Amendment, "No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Justice Kennedy wrote that the government cannot deem that same-sex "unions will be treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law" nor can it insist that same sex-marriages are "less worthy" or viewed as "a second-tier marriage."

The court therefore ruled that the "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." As a result of the court's decision, same-sex marriages will now be entitled to all federal benefits that heterosexual marriages already enjoy including tax breaks and insurance for government employees, to couples in D.C. and the 13 states that recognize same-sex marriage.

President Obama applauded the decision in a statement released earlier today. "This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people," said President Obama. "The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it."

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Hyacinth Mascarenhas

Hyacinth is a graduate of the George Washington University where she majored in Journalism and Mass Communications. Her interests include cultural, social and political trends in the Middle East and South Asia, as well as human rights issues across the globe.

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