Defense of Marriage Act Is Unconstitutional, Supreme Court Rules

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In a major move toward gay marriage equality, the Supreme Court has ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act -- which denied federal benefits such as social security survivor payments to gay couples -- is unconstitutional.

What does that mean for Florida's gay couples? State law still forbids gay marriage and limits benefits, but if they're married in other states, it means broader protection under federal law. A ruling expected later this morning on California's Prop 8, a state ban on gay marriage, could have broader implications.

Update: The court has declined to rule on Prop 8, leaving state bans such as Florida's in place.

In states where gay marriage is legal, this morning's ruling means more than 1,000 federal benefits are now granted to gay partners, including insurance benefits and tax breaks.

The picture is murkier, though, in places such as Florida, where the state legislature has banned gay marriage and many LGBT rights.

If a couple marries in a state where gay unions are legal and then moves to Florida, they could lose many of those benefits. Here's how Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, breaks it down for Atlantic Wire:

This is where things get really complicated. This married couple will lose many (but not all) federal benefits. Minter explains that if someone wanted to take advantage of the Family Medical Leave Act which allows an employee to take time off work to take care for a sick spouse without losing their job, the state law on whether gay marriage exists would apply. So that right would be taken away from a New York couple that moves to Florida.

But Minter says that once a federal right is exercised, it cannot be taken away. So take the example of social security's survivor benefits. If a gay couple was married in New York and one spouse died there, the survivor would continue to collect social security survivor benefits even if he or she moved to Florida, Minter explains. However, if the couple was married in New York, moved to Florida, and one spouse died in Florida, the survivor would not be eligible for social security benefits. Minter bases this on how the federal government deals with existing common-law marriages, which are recognized in some states but not in others. If you're in a common-law marriage and living in a state that recognizes it, the federal government does too, but it won't recognize those marriages in states that don't.

Got that? Here's an even clearer quote from that Atlantic piece on what today's ruling means for Florida:

Elizabeth F. Schwartz, a Florida attorney who works on family law cases for gay couples, agrees, saying her state "would lose a lot of Floridians who want to relocate somewhere where they can get both federal and state benefits."

All that complication could go out the window, though, if the Court strikes down California's Prop 8, which bans gay marriage in that state. If the ruling is broad enough, it could invalidate state bans like Florida's.

The early indication, though, is that the Court is likely to let a lower court's ruling on Prop 8 stand without making a broader judgment that could strike down other state laws.

Update: The AP reports the Supreme Court has declined to rule on Prop 8. So get ready for a confusing day of sussing out what DOMA's removal means for gay couples living in Florida.

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