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And justice3 for all — Two couples from different generations share the same struggle

11th March 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Marjorie R. Esman
Guest Columnist

What do couples Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer and Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving have in common? Both couples found something fewer and fewer couples seem able to find, lasting love. Both also sued the U.S. govern­ment and saw their cases all the way to the Supreme Court.

Jeter and Loving were childhood sweethearts who grew up in Virginia in the 40s and 50s. They were also an interracial couple. After marrying in Washington DC — because Virginia law wouldn’t allow them to marry there — the couple returned home in 1958 and were summarily arrested, charged with unlawful cohabitation and jailed. According to the judge, Leon M. Bazile, “Almighty God created the races white, Black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents…. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.” Judge Bazile sentenced the Lovings to a year in prison, to be suspended if the couple agreed to leave the state for the next 25 years.

Windsor and Spyer were inseparable from the time they met in New York in the late 60s. They were also a same-sex couple. They became engaged in 1967, but – because laws in the United States wouldn’t allow them to marry here — they were married in Canada in 2007. When Spyer died in 2009 she did what spouses often do and left her entire estate to Windsor. Just as the Lovings’ marriage wasn’t recognized in Virginia, Windsor and Spyer’s marriage wasn’t recognized under US law, and the Internal Revenue Service hit Windsor with a $363,000 federal estate tax bill. Just as the Lovings would not have been subject to arrest had they not been an interracial couple, Edith Windsor would not have had to pay estate taxes if she had been married to a man.

These two cases, a generation apart, were prompted by the same governmental intrusion into the legality of personal relationships. Justice for the Lovings began after a letter from Mildred to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The couple was referred to the ACLU, which represented them in the landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia (1967). The Court ruled that state bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional.

Windsor, who became engaged to Spyer in 1967, the year the Loving case was resolved, is also being assisted by the ACLU. She filed suit in New York seeking a refund of her unfair tax payment. After the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in her favor, her case is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court where it will be argued on March 27, 2013.

Windsor’s suit challenges the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed by President Clinton in 1996 defining, for federal purposes, marriage as only between a male and female. DOMA also says that, despite the Constitutional requirement of full faith and credit, states do not have to recognize the same sex marriages of validly performed elsewhere. This is equivalent to having allowed Virginia to continue to refuse to recognize the marriage of Mildred and Richard Loving. Just months before her death in 2008, Mildred Loving spoke in support of same-sex marriages, saying: “I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others, especially if it denies people civil rights.”

Currently, nine states plus the District of Columbia allow same sex marriages. Forty-eight percent of Americans live in states allowing these marriages. Those in opposition use the same arguments formerly raised to oppose interracial unions. ‘It’s unnatural. It will weaken respect for the institution of marriage. Family values will suffer. The children from these unions will be confused about who they are and could have psychological problems later.’ Some wrongly fearing that once the door is opened the government would force churches to perform these marriages.

Personal relationships are the very foundation of society, and the choice of a mate is among the most important and personal decisions an individual will make. While individuals have the right to object to interracial or same-sex marriages, and churches have the right marry who they choose, the government should have no part in dictating such personal and fundamental matters by defining marriage as only legal between a male and female, or only legal between people of the same race, the federal government is taking a moral position with legal ramifications on an issue of basic human rights and equal protection guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Like the Lovings, Windsor and Spyer’s relationship was one for the ages. They were together for more than 40 years. Their utter devotion to each other is proof that same-sex relationships are no different from any other, just as the pure devotion of Richard and Mildred Loving showed the strength of interracial marriages.

As lawyers prepare her case for the Supreme Court, Windsor said in a recent New York Times article that it had always been about marriage, not as a legal document but as a statement about her and Spyer’s relationship. “To get married is a very big deal, and it’s an even bigger deal if you’ve been denied it,” she said.

This article originally published in the March 11, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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