West Virginia leaders react to DOMA decision - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

West Virginians react to DOMA decision

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After the U.S. Supreme Court released its historic decision, which granted federal recognition to same-sex married couples, several West Virginia groups and leaders expressed both their concerns and delights with the ruling.

The court released its opinion June 26 in the case of U.S. v. Windsor, executor of the estate of Spyer, seeking certiorari.

The case began when New York residents Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were married in Canada in 2007. Two years later, Spyer died and left her estate to Windsor.

However, when Windsor wanted to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses, she was barred by Section 3 of the federal Defense Against Marriage Act or DOMA, the opinion states.

According the U.S. Supreme Court opinion, DOMA has two operative sections. Section 2 allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Section 3, which was the one at issue in the Windsor case, states, "In determining the meaning of any act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife."

In a 5-4 vote, U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled Section 3 unconstitutional.

"DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a state entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty," the opinion states. "It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the state finds to be dignified and proper."

"By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment," the opinion later adds. "This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages."

Neil Berch, an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University, explained the ruling means same-sex married couples will be recognized by the federal government but not by states that do not recognize same-sex marriages, like West Virginia.

"They haven't ruled yet on whether other states have to recognize same-sex marriages. They won't rule on that until a case raises that issue," Berch explained. "The opinion suggests that they will find that states have to recognize same-sex marriages in other states, but that's just a guesstimate on my reviews."

Berch said the larger implication for West Virginia residents who are in same-sex relationships are that they now can get married in other states and still be recognized by the federal government.

Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, founder of Fairness West Virginia and the first openly gay member of the West Virginia Legislature, said he was happy about the decision.

Skinner said it was a "lucky coincidence" that he happened to be in D.C. for a meeting.

"We went over to the Supreme Court as soon as we could. We were there for the ruling, outside the court. Of course, we celebrated briefly in the heat," he said. "It was a special moment. There's no question I'm elated. I'm happy for all of the Americans who are going to be recognized by the federal government and I'm happy for the children who are going to be treated a little bit better because their parents aren't going to be discriminated against. It's an exciting day. It's history."

Not everyone was pleased with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, however. Rep. David McKinley, R-WV, called the decision "disappointing."

"Congress passed this Defense of Marriage law to make clear what was understood at the time of our nation's founding — that marriage should be between one man and one woman," McKinley said in the released statement. "Just as the states have constitutional authority to make state policy about marriage, so too Congress has constitutional authority to pass federal laws. After today's decision, the fight to protect traditional marriage will continue. Now the focus will move to the states."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller said he agreed with the Supreme Court's decision.

"As I've said in the past, our younger generations have grown up in a more equal society and they have rightly pushed us to think more about what it means for Americans to be created equal," he said in a released statement. "Today, the Supreme Court spoke to that question when they ruled the federal government cannot discriminate against people who want to marry because of gender. Churches in our nation do not have to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs, but we live in a country that holds equality as a core principle for its citizens and today's decision reflects this thinking." 

Jeremiah Dys, president and general counsel of the Family Policy Council of West Virginia expressed his concern about the ruling.  

However, Dys said he was happy the court did not take up the other section of DOMA, which would require non-participating states to recognize same-sex couples.

"In spite of the Supreme Court's decision today, marriage remains the union of husband and wife— a timeless, universal institution that connects children to their mother and father," Dys said in a released statement. "The Supreme Court got it wrong to invalidate portions of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act. Of course, the federal government has the ability to define marriage for purposes of federal law."

"The ultimate effect of the Supreme Court's decision as to the voter initiative to define marriage between one man and one woman in California's state constitution remains to be seen," he continued. "What we clearly know from the decision today: when state lawmakers refuse to represent the vote of the people, democracy is disserved."

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston also commented on the ruling.

"Today's Supreme Court decisions are indicative of how secular American culture and our government have become," Bransfield said in a statement. "While on retreat this week, I will continue to pray for married couples and families in our diocese."

Bransfield referred people to read the statement made by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Dolan called the decision a "tragic day for marriage and our nation."

"The Supreme Court has dealt a profound injustice to the American people by striking down in part the federal Defense of Marriage Act," Dolan's statement reads. "The court got it wrong. The federal government ought to respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so. The preservation of liberty and justice requires that all laws, federal and state, respect the truth, including the truth about marriage."

However, Casey Willits, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, called the decision a "huge victory for fairness."

"Marriage equality is returning but also every single couple who wants to get legally married in the 12 states will have federal recognition and benefits that are afforded to all married couples," he said, later adding, "It means that the federal government will no longer look at them and say they are single. If they are married, they're married and they get all the benefits."

Willits said this means not only federal benefits like social security but others such as same-sex couples being able to take advantage of the Fifth Amendment. Therefore, they would not have to testify against their spouses.

However, he said he thinks West Virginia still has a way to go to equality.

"This really highlights the need for West Virginia to pass the nondiscrimination act," Willits said. "A couple who can be married, be recognized by the federal government, claim they're married, get VA benefits through legally married spouses, can return to West Virginia, be fired the day they get here, harassed or denied services just because of who they marry. That can't stand in West Virginia and I don't think West Virginians will allow that much longer."

Skinner echoed that, saying although it is a happy day for him, he thinks there is still more work to be done.

"I am personally reminded that in West Virginia, you can still discriminate against gays and lesbians in the workplace and deny them a place to live," he said. "It's bittersweet because while I see some movement forward, it's not going to change for many people in West Virginia tomorrow."