CINCINNATI - Same-sex couples living in the Tri-State who were legally married in other states could now be eligible for 1,000 federal benefits and programs as a result of a Supreme Court ruling Wednesday, Cincinnati attorney Jennifer L. Branch said.
The court gave legally married gay couples equal federal footing with other married Americans, while another ruling cleared the way for same-sex marriages to resume in California.
The rulings don't change the laws that ban same-sex marriage in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and 34 other states. But Ohio supporters were ecstatic and felt empowered by Wednesday's news and think it's just a matter of time before the Buckeye State embraces same-sex marriage, too.
"We are celebrating today," said Elyzabeth Holford, executive director of Equality Ohio. "For same-sex couples legally married and living in Ohio, this is a real game-changer. For the first time they can file their federal taxes jointly - of course, they'll have to file their state taxes individually."
The Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) denying federal tax, health, pension and other benefits to married gay couples.
"This is a huge step in the right direction," Holford said. "It is recognition of loving, partnered families. It allows for the dignity of recognized relationships. We've still got work to do for full equality here in Ohio, but today we joyously celebrate."
Ohio voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2004 banning same-sex marriages, and the state does not recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
"The path to full LGBT (lebian, gay, bisexual,transgender) equality will be longer in Ohio and the many other states with discrimination written into their constitutions," said ACLU of Ohio Executive Director Christine Link. "Now the writing is on the wall. Public support for marriage equality is increasing every day and it is highest among young people. It may not happen tomorrow, but it will happen."
But Charles Tassell of Citizens for Community Values, a group that championed the gay marriage ban in Ohio, doesn't think it will happen anytime soon.
"The marriage amendment is still supported in Ohio by right around 58-59 percent, so I'm not looking at a whole bunch of momentum moving forward in Ohio. That's still pretty strong support by Ohioans for the definition of marriage being one man and one woman," Tassell said.
While the DOMA ruling grants federal benefits to people who were married and live in the District of Columbia and the 13 states that allow same-sex marriage, the picture is more complicated for same-sex couples who traveled to another state to get married, or who have moved from a gay marriage state since being wed.
Their eligibility depends on the benefits they are seeking. For instance, immigration law focuses on where people were married, not where they live. But eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits basically depends on where a couple is living when a spouse dies.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he was disappointed in the outcome of the federal marriage case and hoped states continue to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. He issued this statement:
"Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis and President Clinton signed it into law. The House intervened in this case because the constitutionality of a law should be judged by the Court, not by the president unilaterally. While I am obviously disappointed in the ruling, it is always critical that we protect our system of checks and balances. A robust national debate over marriage will continue in the public square, and it is my hope that states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman."
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who recently announced he had changed his mind in support of gay marriage after learning that his son is gay, said in a statement that he would have preferred the decision be made by the states, not by the court:
"Marriage laws should remain in the hands of the states, where they have been since the beginning of the Republic. People of good faith differ on the marriage issue. I believe that gay couples deserve the opportunity to marry, but I believe change should come about through the democratic process in the states, through the process of citizen persuading fellow citizen that civil marriage should be allowed."
Ohio Gov. John Kasich tweeted: "I support traditional marriage."
The broadest possible ruling would have given gay Americans the same constitutional right to marry as heterosexuals. The justices said nothing on that topic in either case.
After reading the DOMA decision, attorney Branch was astounded by its scope and significance.
"I could think of 1,000 federal benefits you can not be discriminated against because you're gay. That's huge. And that just happened (Wednesday) morning," said Branch, a partner in Gerhardstein & Branch Co.
"It means you can't discriminate against people based on gender identity when it comes to marriage. It gives gays equal protection under the law. (The court's decision) was not expected to be so broad. They completely struck down a federal law in effect since 1996."
Branch said the decision reflects a sweeping shift in opinion and acceptance in the country that happened faster than it did for women's rights or racial equality.
"My first reaction was to think how fast the law can change and how fast public opinion can change," Branch said. "I looked up when the Stonewall riots happened and it was 44 years ago. It didn't happen that fast with gender rights. That took 50 years. Or racial equality – Brown vs. Board of Education – that took 100 years. People's opinion changed through pop culture, the media, and now the law has changed."
The Stonewall riots in 1969 were a series of violent demonstrations by gays after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York. They are considered to be the flashpoint for the gay rights movement.
Branch recalled her first case in Cincinnati in 1998. She and Al Gerhardstein represented a school teacher who was fired for being gay. "You wouldn't think twice about that now. You'd say, ‘A public employer can't fire somebody for being gay,'" she said.
In 2005, they represented a transgender Cincinnati police sergeant who was demoted after coming out.
"Even then, we felt a shift in opinion in Cincinnati. The jury looked at her and decided the case on her job performance," Branch said.
They won both cases.
"Today's decision is a capstone for those decisions. It's exciting," Branch said.
In the DOMA case, the justices reviewed the case of 83-year-old Edith Windsor of New York, who sued to challenge a $363,000 federal estate tax bill after her partner of 44 years died in 2009. Windsor married Thea Spyer in 2007 after doctors told them Spyer, who suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years, would not live much longer. Spyer left everything she had to Windsor.
Windsor would have paid nothing in inheritance taxes if she had been married to a man. And now she is eligible for a refund.
"This is a historic moment for the LGBT movement," said Susan Becker, professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and past president of the ACLU of Ohio. "Edie's case was a textbook illustration of the harms caused by DOMA. It is our hope that today's decision will mark the beginning of the end for government sanctioned discrimination against the LGBT community."
The other states that allow gay marriage are Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Read the Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage act at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/717929-supreme-court-decision-on-defense-of-marriage-act.html
Read the Supreme Court decision on California Proposition 8 at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/717928-supreme-court-decision-on-california-proposition-8.html