When my father died a few months ago, my mother was heart-broken. But at least she was left financially secure, thanks to veteran and Social Security survivor benefits, and the fact that she was able to stay in the home that they shared during most of their 61-year marriage.
But if they had been a same-sex couple in precisely the same situation, Mom may well have lost her soul mate, her home, and her economic well being, all at the age of 85.
The fundamental unfairness of that is what the U.S. Supreme Court will take up on Wednesday when it hears arguments in the ACLU case of Windsor v. United States, a challenge to the misnamed “Defense of Marriage Act.” (Editor’s note: On Tuesday, the Court will hear arguments on whether Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage, violates the Constitution.)
The case is about a love story, involving Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer, who were a couple for over 40 years. After a decades-long engagement, they were finally able to legally marry two years before Thea’s death in 2009.
Edie and my mother have a lot in common. Both are smart women in their 80s. Both have a clear sense of right and wrong. And both took seriously their marriage vows — notably the part about sticking it out “for better or worse” — when called upon to care for a spouse who suffered from a slow, degenerative illness.
Unlike my mother, however, Edie was forced to pay more than $360,000 in estate taxes after her beloved spouse passed away. Edie would not have had to pay any estate taxes on their shared home after Thea’s death if she had been married to a man.
It’s not just about the money. Edie’s case is about ensuring fairness and ending discrimination. Under DOMA, the federal government denies legally married same-sex couples the same benefits and protections that other married couples and their families count on. These include the ability to participate in health care plans without incurring additional taxes, take family medical leave to care for your spouse, receive Social Security survivor benefits, and inherit property, including the home you shared as a married couple, without having to pay enormous taxes when your spouse dies.
Same-sex couples pay taxes, vote, serve in the military, and run businesses. They work hard and pay into the same system as everyone else. So when those same couples take on the responsibility and commitment of marriage, it’s wrong for the federal government to discriminate against them. If Edie prevails in her case, this pernicious form of discrimination against legally married same-sex couples will be lifted.
“Edie Windsor was a devoted wife and care-giver. The least she can expect is to be treated fairly by her government,” said Mom when we spoke last week. “This kind of discrimination is just wrong. It’s time to put a stop to it.”
Marriages like those of Edie and Thea, and my parents, are a tribute to the strong and enduring relationships that form between two people. In the name of freedom and fairness — and to strengthen the institution of marriage itself — the Court should find in Edie’s favor.