Same-sex marriage and one old woman’s tax bill

The same-sex marriage debate will begin anew in Minnesota tomorrow when sponsors of a bill to legalize same sex marriage unveil their initiative.

Minnesota was one of the first states to legally rule that people of the same sex cannot be married. In 1971, Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell (picture) challenged Hennepin County’s refusal to grant them a marriage license. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled against the couple and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Twenty-five years later, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act and a year later, Minnesota passed its own version, specifically prohibiting same-sex marriage.

In Washington today an 83-year old woman challenged the federal DOMA when she filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court. When Edith Schlain Windsor’s spouse died four years ago, she said, she had to pay a $363,053 estate tax. If she’d married a man, she would have paid nothing.

They were married in Canada after her spouse was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and although New York, where the couple lived, recognizes same-sex marriage, DOMA does not.

The 77-page brief filed today provides something so often missing in the political debate around the issue: a human story.

Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog tells it:


She noted that, at the time she fell in love with Thea Spyer in the early 1960s, it was “a time when lesbians and gay men risked losing their families, friends, and livelihoods if their sexual orientation became known.” The couple then began “a relationship that would last until Dr. Spyer’s death forty-four years later.”

Before they met, Ms. Windsor had tried a brief marriage with a man “because she did not believe that it was possible for her to live openly as a lesbian.” While she was in graduate school, she noted, she worked as a computer programmer for the Atomic Energy Commission at a time when a presidential executive order barred the government from employing homosexuals — but she was never asked by the FBI about her sexual orientation in reviewing her eligibility for security clearance.

When she was later hired by IBM as a programmer, that employment, too, was supposed to be barred because IBM was a government contractor.

When she and Dr. Spyer were engaging in their courtship in New York City, they met at a restaurant where lesbians were allowed to eat. After they moved in together and became engaged, Dr. Spyer gave her a diamond brooch instead of a ring, to avoid questions from Ms Windsor’s co-workers if they knew she was engaged.

Much of the debate about same-sex marriage has focused on perceived morality. When the Supreme Court hears the challenge next month, it may come down to one old woman’s tax bill.