What the DOMA Decision Could Mean for Immigrants and Military Families

With a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. The ruling means that married same-sex couples will now be entitled to the same federal benefits as opposite-sex couples. One of the main beneficiaries of the decision will be the estimated ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

With a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the U.S. Constitution's equal protection guarantee. The ruling means that married same-sex couples will now be entitled to the same federal benefits as opposite-sex couples.

One of the main beneficiaries of the decision will be the estimated 36,000 binational same-sex couples living in the United States as well as countless more forced to live outside the country because, under DOMA, gay Americans could not sponsor their husbands or wives for citizenship, even if they had been married in one of the 12 states -- plus the District of Columbia -- where same-sex marriage is legal.

On a political level, the decision could also smooth the way for the immigration reform bill making its way through Congress. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in particular, has been pushing for the inclusion of specific language in the bill giving equal protection to immigrants in same-sex marriages. "I can't look at one Vermont couple and say, 'OK, we can take care of you,' but another couple, 'We have to discriminate against you,'" he recently told the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza.

With a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. The ruling means that married same-sex couples will now be entitled to the same federal benefits as opposite-sex couples.

One of the main beneficiaries of the decision will be the estimated 36,000 binational same-sex couples living in the United States as well as countless more forced to live outside the country because, under DOMA, gay Americans could not sponsor their husbands or wives for citizenship, even if they had been married in one of the 12 states — plus the District of Columbia — where same-sex marriage is legal.

On a political level, the decision could also smooth the way for the immigration reform bill making its way through Congress. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in particular, has been pushing for the inclusion of specific language in the bill giving equal protection to immigrants in same-sex marriages. "I can’t look at one Vermont couple and say, ‘OK, we can take care of you,’ but another couple, ‘We have to discriminate against you,’" he recently told the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza.

But key Republican supporters of the bill, including Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, threatened to walk away from the legislation if the gay marriage language were added. And Democratic same-sex marriage supporters like Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin ended up voting against Leahy’s amendment in order to keep their fragile coalition together, angering some gay rights groups. The Supreme Court’s decision will take the heat off a little bit, enabling Barack Obama’s administration to extend immigration benefits to same-sex couples without action from Congress.

This isn’t a perfect fix. As ABC’s Abby Phillip writes, "relying solely on the court to strike down DOMA could mean that a future administration could reverse Obama’s actions when it comes to immigration law." However, given the larger political and legal trends in the country, it’s hard to imagine a future administration taking that step or the court upholding its right to.

Another less-discussed beneficiary of today’s decision will be same-sex military families. Even after the end of its "don’t ask, don’t tell" (DADT) policy, the U.S. military still did not recognize same-sex marriages because of DOMA.

In January, I wrote about the case of Army Sgt. Donna Johnson, who was killed by a suicide bomber while on patrol in Khost, Afghanistan, last year. Johnson married her partner, Tracy Dice, in Washington, D.C., shortly after the repeal of DADT in 2011. But Dice was still not recognized as Johnson’s spouse by the Department of Defense, meaning she was not among those first informed of her wife’s death — she read about it on the Internet — and was not eligible for the survivor benefits, counseling, or honors usually given to the husbands and wives of deceased service members. If not for an intervention by Johnson’s mother, Dice would not have been allowed to accompany her wife’s casket upon its arrival in the United States.

Johnson was the first known gay, married service member killed after the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," but almost certainly won’t be the last. Here’s hoping that after today, their husbands and wives will be treated with a bit more respect.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.