WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court offered at least a measure of support today for doing away with a federal law that denies legally married same-sex couples the same range of benefits provided to heterosexual partners.
For nearly two hours, the justices debated the constitutionality of the Defence of Marriage Act, or DOMA, a 1996 law that says for federal purposes, marriage is defined as only between one man and one woman.
A ruling is expected within three months.
The arguments concluded two days of presentations before the high court on the right of gay and lesbian couples to wed and receive the full benefits of law provided to heterosexual couples.
Under DOMA, Social Security, pension and bankruptcy benefits, along with family medical leave protections and other provisions, do not apply to gay and lesbian couples legally married in states that recognise such unions.
This case argued today involved Edith Edie Windsor, who was forced to assume an estate tax bill much larger than heterosexual married couples would have to pay. Because her decades-long partner was a woman, the federal government did not recognise their same-sex marriage in legal terms, even though their home state of New York did.
The court appeared divided along ideological lines during the arguments about whether DOMA is discriminatory and steps on state marriage laws for gays and lesbians.
If legally married homosexuals were being denied more than 1,100 federal benefits, “what kind of marriage is that?” asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said the discriminatory effect was “pervasive.”
The potential swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy, said DOMA presents a “real risk of running into traditional state police power to regulate marriage.”
However, when Windsor’s lawyer argued in court there was a “sea change” afoot today in support of same-sex marriage that leaves DOMA outdated, Chief Justice John Roberts said that is because of “the political effectiveness of those on your side” swaying public opinion.
Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia suggested DOMA could still remain in place as a valid extension of congressional authority, as 41 states do not allow same-sex marriage. (CNN)