The institution of marriage dates back to ancient Mesopotamia but wasn't historically managed by presiding governments. It wasn't until the Revenue Act of 1913 that the US federal government started involving itself in unions.
The diversity in marriage types, ranging from monogamous to polygamous relationships, set the stage for its integration into legal frameworks, transforming its significance beyond personal relationships and family dynamics.
Introducing marriage into legal codes moved its significance beyond personal relationships and family dynamics. It became a direct pipeline to coveted rights and benefits and demanded new conversations over its role in modern society.
What is the Defense of Marriage Act?
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was a landmark piece of legislation enacted in 1996. Its purpose was to outline the features of a legal union more clearly and help sort out eligibility for various benefits and protections.
DOMA marked a significant change from existing legal traditions and set the stage for a complex legal landscape regarding marriage rights.
The Rise and Impact of DOMA
At the time of DOMA's creation, there was a striking ambiguity regarding marriages on a federal level. DOMA aimed to create consistency across laws and regulations and was a way to avoid potential conflicts from varying state marriage laws.
DOMA's Legal Implications
DOMA had significant legal consequences regarding each state's autonomy over marriages. States wed couples under their own laws, which didn't consistently translate when they moved to other areas. This caused people to lose access to the legal benefits of marriage.
A person's marital status significantly affects eligibility for Social Security, housing, food stamps, and other social benefits. There were also several veteran programs for spouses regarding pensions and survivor benefits.
Challenges and Opposition to DOMA
Support for DOMA was largely positive within Congress, meeting very little opposition from politicians. DOMA was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 21, 1996.
However, DOMA faced vehement opposition from marriage equality advocates following its announcement. These complaints sparked nationwide battles that persist today, leading to the removal of integral DOMA provisions by 2015.
What is the Respect for Marriage Act?
While DOMA established a clear definition of legal marriage, unfortunately, it included many discriminatory practices. Established on December 13, 2022, The Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA) repealed those provisions and set a more equitable foundation for all couples.
RFMA nullified its predecessor's description of "spouses" as two people with opposite genders. This repeal fundamentally recognized the legitimacy of marriages where two people have the same gender under federal law and signified a major societal shift.
Apart from tax benefits, RFMA guaranteed multiple other rights to couples, including:
- Legal connection to non-biological children
- Medical leave to care for a spouse or their children
- Right to inheritance and estate
The Legal History Behind RFMA
RFMA opened the door for all couples to enjoy the full array of benefits tied to marriage. The most critical cases involved in DOMA's downfall were United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges.
In 2007, Windsor and Spyer married in Canada since their home state of New York didn't legalize marriage for people of the same gender until mid-2011. Spyer passed and left her estate to her wife, but the claim was barred by DOMA, causing the federal government not to recognize the union.
The case was brought before the Supreme Court in 2013, which found DOMA unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment. The courts decided that DOMA's text showed a desire to harm a politically unpopular group and assign a lesser status as citizens to them.
Windsor's case destroyed DOMA's definition of marriage as only between two people of opposite genders. However, it did not address each state's right not to recognize certain unions.
Two years after Windsor's case, Obergefell v. Hodges finished the job. The plaintiffs challenged DOMA as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee against individual state's right to create "laws which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."
The case was sent to multiple courts, leading to numerous reversals. However, the Supreme Court voted on behalf of the Plaintiffs and required states to recognize a marriage between all couples, regardless of gender and their marrying state.
In combination, these major court cases removed the discriminatory aspects of DOMA and paved the road for the creation of RFMA.
State Opinions on Respect for Marriage Act
Congress itself was unsurprisingly divided in the 258-169-5 vote. All 169 votes against and the 5 abstainers came from members of the GOP. Some supported previous iterations of the bill but chose to switch due to "failures to provide sufficient religious safeguards" in the final version.
Ongoing Challenges to RFMA
Despite the repeal of DOMA, challenges to RFMA persist. Many groups view the RFMA as the first step to undermining religious rights. They fear that this bill opens the possibility of further action that will legally force religious practitioners to act against their beliefs.
However, the RFMA explicitly mentions that it only affects institutions "acting under the color of State law." This is fancy terminology for government bodies and officials. Private entities like churches and nonprofit religious organizations cannot have their tax-exempt statuses revoked for not participating in specific types of marriages.
Social and Cultural Impact of Marriage Equality
As the discourse on marriage equality progresses, the debate between arranged marriage and love marriage surfaces, highlighting contrasting views on autonomy, tradition, and the essence of companionship.
The recognition of marriage equality in society and media has a long timeline. Public attitudes toward all relationships have evolved, challenging the norms and fostering greater acceptance of relationships that were once compared to incest.
Although first conceived in 2011, RFMA wasn't introduced to Congress until 2021. By this time, public opinion surrounding equal marriage had softened considerably, with 74 percent of Americans believing in marriage equality, 13 percent uncertain, and 13 percent opposed.
In comparison, barely 50 percent of Americans agreed with marriage equality in 2011.
The Changes in Laws Will Continue to Evolve
The transformation of marriage laws, from the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA), has been a decades-long journey. It's marked by crucial court cases that fought hard to tear down DOMA provisions and allowed federal law to reflect transitioning social views.
The challenges and successes of RFMA highlight the ongoing struggle for equality and balancing them with other unalienable liberties. It also shows the American people's continued efforts to design a more inclusive and fair society.