Like all Americans, Paul Crego has heard the “Star-Spangled Banner” many times.
But when the national anthem was sung in celebration Wednesday morning outside the Supreme Court after the DOMA ruling, the words sounded especially sweet.
“Hearing the phrase ‘land of the free’ is a little more real now,” said Crego, a cataloguing specialist at the Library of Congress.
In a 5 to 4 decision, the justices killed the section of the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. The decision came one day after the same court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Twenty-four hours after the court made it much harder to enforce one law designed to protect the rights of African Americans, it sliced another law blocking rights for gay Americans. DOMA meant a federal employee such as Crego was denied spousal employment and other benefits simply because of the gender of his spouse.
Martin “Al” Koski, 70, hugged his husband, Jim Fitzgerald, to mark a victory the couple didn’t think they’d live to see. “We thought it would never happen in our lifetime,” said Koski, a retired Social Security employee in Bourne, Mass. And after the court’s Voting Rights Act decision, he said, “we thought we were going to go in the toilet, too.”
Federal employees such as Koski have long been at the forefront of the effort to defeat DOMA, either in court or in Congress. They have been hit especially hard by the law. On top of whatever advantages were denied to other same-sex married couples, a marriage that included a federal employee was blocked from enjoying the benefits that come with employment. These are benefits, by the way, that many private firms have long provided because it’s good business and the right thing to do.
“We’ve been fighting this for five years,” said Karen Golinski, a federal lawyer in California who won an early victory to get health benefits for her wife. “Our marriage is finally going to be recognized by the federal government. It’s a huge relief.”
The importance of the decision goes well beyond practical, albeit very important, things such as paying for extra health insurance for a spouse because of DOMA. It speaks to the dignity DOMA denied “for no legitimate purpose,” in the words of the decision written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and other House Republican leaders urged the court to uphold DOMA. “[I] am obviously disappointed in the ruling . . .” Boehner said. “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.”
When the ruling was announced, Lorilyn “Candy” Holmes, a Government Accountability Office IT manager, said: “I sat with my face in my hands and I wept. I couldn’t stop crying.”
“It was a powerful message, that all people are created equal and that includes us,” Holmes said. “We are recognized under the law now.”
Holmes has served Uncle Sam for 37 years without getting a full deal in return. With this decision, that’s about to change. It left her full of emotion Wednesday, her feelings fueled by being an African American, a lesbian, a federal employee and a person of faith. There’s a lot in her mix.
“It’s been an uphill journey, working for the federal government and feeling like I’m a second-class citizen because of who I love . . .” she said. “I feel like I stepped out of a very gloomy past . . . I’ve been crying and singing . . . freedom is coming.”
Yet she knows the DOMA decision and another allowing same-sex marriage to stand in California “are significant steps but don’t mean full equality.”
For all of the celebration outside the Supreme Court, marriage inequality is the rule in most of America. And that leads to some uncertainty on how the court’s decision will be implemented.
“Virtually immediately, legally married gay couples that live in marriage-equality states will have access to the same federal rights and benefits of marriage afforded to straight couples,” said Fred Sainz, a vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
But in those states that discriminate against same-sex marriage, “the landscape is less clear,” he said. “Why? Because federal agencies have different standards to recognize a marriage, primarily centered on where the couple married or resides. To make the matter more complex, some of the definitions are set by regulation while some are set by statute.”
That means it is important for the Obama administration to interpret the decision clearly, quickly and inclusively so that couples who were legally married in one state are not denied benefits because they live in a state that does not recognize their union.
“I’ve directed the attorney general to work with other members of my Cabinet to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, including its implications for federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly,” President Obama said. He should have added “broadly” to that sentence.
Without defining how the DOMA decision will be implemented, Elaine Kaplan, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, said the agency’s current practice is to determine whether employees are legally married when spousal benefits are considered without the state of residence being a factor. While administration officials “recognize that our married gay and lesbian employees have already waited too long for this day, we ask for their continued patience as we take the steps necessary to review the Supreme Court’s decision and implement it,” she said. “As soon as we have updates to share, they will be posted on our Web site.”
Make it quick.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.