The U.S. Supreme Court's decision last week settled one question but left another wide open. Yes, the court said, the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 in unconstitutional. Its definition of marriage as "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife" violates the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection.
It is important to remember, though, that DOMA only applies to federal law. While some Illinois citizens will benefit, the laws of the state are untouched by the decision. Same-sex couples cannot marry here, a fact that critics say the court sidestepped in this decision.
The plaintiff in the case, Edith Windsor, was challenging one of the roughly 1,000 federal laws that relied on DOMA's definitions of "marriage" and "spouse." Windsor and Thea Spyer were married in Canada, but their marriage was not recognized in this country.
When Spyer died, Windsor inherited Spyer's entire estate -- and promptly received a bill from the Internal Revenue Service for $363,053 in estate taxes. That tax bill sparked the lawsuit that changed an untold number of lives.
The people who will feel the change in Lake County are the same-sex couples who were married in other states. Couples who entered into civil unions under the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act will not be treated any differently by the IRS or any other branch of the federal government.
Marriage and all that goes with it -- divorce, child custody, child support and so on -- are left to the states to govern. The tradition goes back to the country's beginnings, and critics argued that the federal government had no place messing with the definition of marriage almost from the minute DOMA became law.
The majority decision notes this but does not dig any deeper. This decision does not compel Illinois to legalize same-sex marriage.
Source: Chicago Tribune, "Ruling bolsters Illinois gays and lesbians, though immediate benefits may be few," Rex W. Huppke and Rick Pearson, June 27, 2013