The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense Against Marriage Act (DOMA) Wednesday.
In a historic 5-4 ruling, the court decided the federal law barring federal marriage benefits to married gay couples was unconstitutional. Passed in 1996 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the act prevented married same-sex couples in 12 states and the District of Columbia from receiving 1,138 federal benefits. Those benefits range from tax benefits to survivor benefits to green cards for partners.
The DOMA decision has varying effects on people in the tri-state region because of the different same-sex marriage laws in each state.
The State of Delaware is the only state in our area to recognize same-sex marriages. Delaware passed gay marriage legislation in May and will begin marriages on July 1. The state previously offered civil unions.
When marriages begin in The First State, couples will be able to receive the 1,138 federal benefits previously barred for same-sex marriages.
The State of New Jersey has recognized civil unions since 2007. Civil unions were granted in the state following a 2006 ruling on the case of Lewis v. Harris in the state supreme court. The ruling required New Jersey provide gay couples all of the same rights and befits of marriage, but did not explicitly require marriage, according to Lambda Legal.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling applies specifically to gay marriage, New Jerseyans who have civil unions will continue to not receive federal benefits. Garden State Equality Executive Director Troy Stevenson says same-sex couples in New Jersey are still considered second class citizens, but is hopeful the law will change.
“I think it’s very apparent the debate is over and civil unions are unequal and it’s time for them to go away. It’s time for marriage to be the law of the land in New Jersey,” he said.
Garden State Equality along with seven same-sex couples are currently suing the state to have the civil union system ruled unconstitutional and in turn institute same-sex marriage. Stevenson says Wednesday’s ruling will undoubtedly help their case.
“On a scale of one-to-10 on how sweeping the DOMA case could be, this is a 9.5 and will definitely help our case.”
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania currently has a state law banning gay marriage. Thirty-five other states have similar bans. Passed in 1996, the state statute defines marriage as between one man and one woman. It also states same-sex marriages or unions legalized in other states are not recognized in Pennsylvania.
The ruling overturning the federal Defense Against Marriage Act could open up legal action against the state statute. Should the state ban on gay marriage be overturned, Pennsylvania would still need to pass laws recognizing same-sex marriages.
There is currently a state senate bill in the Pennsylvania Senate which would legalize same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania. The bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware) says the U.S. Supreme Court decision leaves Pa. lawmakers to decide whether the state's laws are discriminatory.
“It's time for our government to do right by all of the people of our great Commonwealth, and pass marriage equality and anti-discrimination legislation this year,” he said.
Senate Bill 719, as its titled, still needs to be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee.