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Supreme Court Considers Marriage Equality

March 29, 2013 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

Two domestic relations cases came before the Supreme Court of the United States this week that has gripped the nation’s interest and polarized proponents for and against marriage equality. Domestic relations are typically left to each state to decide so that each state is generally permitted to enact their own lows governing marriage, domestic relations, and divorce. The result is that there are different rules in each state governing getting married, being married, and getting divorced. It is unusual for the Supreme Court to have not one but two cases in the same session dealing with marriage rights. Both cases involve same-sex marriages and the rulings have potential far-reaching effects for our local community.

The first case involves a California Proposition passed by voters in the 2008 election to ban marriages between couples of the same sex. A lower court has already ruled this Proposition unconstitutional and now the issue is in the hands of the highest court in the land.

In 2008, in the same election where Proposition 8 passed in California, Florida voters passed a similar law: a Constitutional Amendment called “Amendment 2” which states that
“Inasmuch as marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.”

This Constitutional Amendment extended Florida’s previous statute banning recognition of same-sex marriages, but also to domestic partnerships and civil unions that many other states that do not recognize same-sex marriages authorize as a marriage “lite” type of relationship. These other types of unions are not necessarily limited to same-sex couples but also offer marital-type relationships to, for example, senior citizens who wish to confer certain rights on each other but not jeopardize their children’s inheritance or their ability to be self-supporting through a deceased spouse’s pension or social security benefits by remarrying.

Amendment 2 extended Florida’s 1997 ban on any recognition of same-sex marriage. Fla.Stat 741.212 codified the federal Defense of Marriage Act and defines marriage as between one man and one woman and states that Florida will not recognize any same sex marriage even if the couple legally married in another state. This means that Florida residents who legally wed in a same-sex union in another state cannot enjoy any state benefits of marriage, and also cannot obtain a divorce in Florida. These couples remain wedlocked despite their desire to dissolve their union, equitably distribute their assets, deal with support obligations, and remarry…all benefits conferred on opposite-sex married couples without question.

The second case before the Supreme Court of the United States involves the federal Defense of Marriage Act passed by the Clinton Administration that 1) defines marriage as between one man and one woman, 2) allows states to not recognize legal same-sex marriages from other states, and 3) denies federal benefits to same-sex couples legally married in their state. This means that couples who are legally married in their state cannot file taxes jointly as a married couple, among many other federal implications.

In the case before the Supreme Court, the third part of DOMA regarding federal benefits is at issue. The facts before the case are this: an elderly woman whose legal spouse and partner of 40 years died. If her spouse had been a man, she would have paid $0 in estate taxes. But because her life partner and spouse was a woman, she was ordered to pay $363,000 of her wife’s estate to the federal government because the federal government would not recognize her marriage and extend the same rights to her as it would an opposite-sex married couple. Regardless of one’s opinion on whether there should be federal benefits for married couples in general, it is only fair and equitable that as long as those benefits are offered, they should be equally applied across the board and not based on the gender of the spouse someone chooses to marry.

Decisions are expected to be published this summer. The legal status of Florida Statute 742 and Amendment 2 that do not permit or recognize same-sex marriages or any union resembling marriage could be affected by the Court’s rulings. In the meantime, Florida residents in legal same-sex marriages will have to continue the fiction of being married in one state and not have their union recognized in Florida or by the United States of America, while others patiently wait to join in a marital union that will be recognized by the state where they live.


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