It’s 10am on Wednesday, June 26. Debra Guy and Meridith Wolnick have put their morning on hold to hover around a computer, anxiously following the SCOTUSblog as it ticks live updates from the nation’s capital.
“I was surprised by my physical reaction,” said Guy, who was overcome by chills and tears when news hit that the Supreme Court had ruled part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. The impacts of last week’s ruling on states like Virginia with bans on same-sex marriage are still up for debate, but gay rights activists and legal experts agree that it’s a critical step in the fight for legalizing gay and lesbian marriage.
“We are hopeful that these two decisions signify a great change among the country that will, one day, lead to marriage equality here in Virginia,” Guy said.
In its historic 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court overturned Section 3 of DOMA, which barred same-sex marriages from being recognized under federal law, preventing couples from receiving benefits like Social Security, joint taxes, and shared insurance. The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, says that treating any married couple as “less respected than others” violates the Fifth Amendment.
So what does that mean for Virginia couples like Guy and Wolnick? Despite the restrictions that prevent Guy and Wolnick from sharing health insurance, equal custody rights to their 3-year-old daughter, and hundreds of other marriage benefits, the couple have found a home in the progressive island that is Charlottesville.
According to University of Virginia constitutional law professor Kim Forde-Mazrui, the ruling will have little, if any, immediate impact in the Commonwealth, where a ban on same-sex marriage has been in effect for seven years.
“But in the long term, I think it clearly does, because the reasoning of the case is primarily about the equality and liberty rights of same-sex couples,” Forde-Mazrui said. “I think this is a signal to the lower courts to invalidate most laws against same-sex marriage, especially those enacted in recent decades with the specific purpose of preventing same-sex marriage.”
The court’s ruling was still fairly narrow. Section 2 of DOMA, which was not addressed by the Supreme Court, says that one state does not have to recognize the same-sex marriage of another. Couples and legal experts nationwide are wondering whether the federal benefits would still apply across state lines, especially in the 37 states that still outlaw same-sex marriage. Forde-Mazrui said Section 2 is motivated by the same congressional disapproval of same-sex marriage as Section 3, and thus should be fairly easy to challenge in court.
“It seems to me that the reasoning of the DOMA case strongly puts pressure on the validity of Section 2,” he said.
Virginia’s laws are some of the most extreme in the country, barring same-sex marriage, civil unions, and any contracts that approximate marriage. Guy and Wolnick exchanged rings and vows eight years ago, and said they have no plans to pursue legal status until it holds in Virginia. They’ve found a home here and are anxiously awaiting the day they can go to a Virginia courthouse for a marriage certificate.
“We’ve built our own little community, and we find comfort in those sorts of protections that we can make ourselves as opposed to the ones the state can provide for us,” Guy said.