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US Supreme Court primer on two major gay marriage cases

Sandy Stier (left) and Kris Perry are one of the couples at the center of the Supreme Court's consideration of gay marriage. Their case attempts to strike down California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages and to declare that gay couples can marry nationwide. (AP File photo)

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on two major gay rights cases this week. One challenges California’s ban on same-sex marriage and the other defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Here’s a simple explanation of both cases.

United States v. Windsor is the challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

This case court comes from Edith Windsor, who in 2007 married her partner of 40 years, Thea Spyer.

When Spyer died a few years ago, Windsor inherited her entire estate, but the estate also came with a federal estate tax bill of nearly $400,000 that Windsor would not have had to pay if she had been married to a man.

This case is about whether the federal government can treat married same-sex couples differently from married opposite-sex couples through programs like Social Security benefits, immigration, and income taxes.

Congress passed DOMA in 1996 when President Clinton was in office, restricting federal marriage benefits to only opposite-sex marriages. Former presidents Clinton and George Bush, as well as President Obama have all defended the law.

But in 2011, President Obama reversed his position and stated that he believes DOMA violates the rights of same-sex couples.

DOMA has been challenged by a number of cases over the years including one out of Tacoma. Lee and Ann Kandu, who were married in British Columbia in August 2003, filed a joint bankruptcy petition in Tacoma, but later the Justice Department opposed it citing DOMA.

Hollingsworth v. Perry is the other landmark case being considered, involving California’s Proposition 8 – the voter passed ban on same-sex marriage.

Proposition 8 was a California ballot measure and a state constitutional amendment passed that passed in November of 2008.

The measure added a new provision to the California Constitution, which provides that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

In May 2009, Alameda County denied Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier a marriage license because they are a same-sex couple.

The usual defendants in such a case would be California’s governor or attorney general but they declined to defend the initiative as constitutional. The sponsors of Proposition 8 stepped into the case as defendants, led by Dennis Hollingsworth with

Many in Washington are watching these rulings closely now that voters decided to allow same-sex marriage.

“The plaintiffs are asking the judges to impose their definition of marriage on every state in the country, regardless of how the people feel about them,” says Joseph Backholm of the Family Policy Institute of Washington. “Pray that truth wins.”

Several LGBTQ rights and civil rights groups are sponsoring a community gathering in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings.

The event will be held on the steps of the federal courthouse at 1010 Fifth Ave. at 5:00 pm on the day the Court issues its rulings on lawsuits regarding the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8.


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