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Supreme Court Decision Leaves Definition of Marriage up to States

Our McKinney readers have likely heard by now of the recent Supreme Court decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). As has been pointed out by numerous commentators on the ruling, federalism was a leading principle upon which the decision was based. Federalism, of course, is the right of states to determine matters traditionally within their jurisdiction.

DOMA, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, defined marriage as between one man and one woman, and prevented same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits available to heterosexual married couples, even in states where homosexual marriage is recognized.

The decision was obviously a victory for supporters of gay rights but essentially means that the benefits made possible by the decision depend on the state in which one lives. States still have the right to define marriage in the way they see fit, under the high court’s decision.

What this means is that same-sex couples in Texas may still not take advantage of the marital estate tax deduction, survivor benefits for social security, federal domestic violence protections, and other federal benefits.

The Supreme Court, while clearly a victory for gay rights, is not a full victory, since it recognizes the right of states to define marriage. For now, the issue is subject to the political process, meaning that there will likely be great efforts at the state level to get things changed for gay couples.

The issue of gay marriage is obviously one which is polarizing to many of our readers. Deeply held values are at stake on both sides of the argument. From a family law perspective, the issue is important in that it affects the way attorneys go about protecting their clients.

Source:, “U.S. Supreme Court Gay Rights Decisions Are Victory But Not in Texas,” Edward Garris, June 27, 2013.