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Editorial: Nation needs high court to rule on DOMA cases

Combatants on both sides of gay rights issues waited with great anticipation last Friday to see whether the U.S. Supreme Court would take up any cases that could propel or impede gay marriage across the country. Such decisions are usually announced on Fridays or Mondays, but both days came and went without the court uttering a peep.

So the pressure is on to make those decisions this week because it’s the last chance before the court heads into a long holiday recess. The court ought to get on with it, and they have 10 cases from which to choose as they shape this issue for the foreseeable future.

The cases involving the Defense of Marriage Act, which Congress passed in 1996, offer the best avenue for sweeping change, because DOMA prevents same-sex couples from being treated equally by the feds even if they’ve been married. This battle has gained greater prominence now that three more states – Washington, Maine and Maryland – have legalized gay marriage.

The issue is whether same-sex couples should be granted equal protection. The Obama administration considers DOMA to be unconstitutional, and has ordered the U.S. Justice Department to stop enforcing the law. We agree with the administration, but it would be better if the high court struck down DOMA, as some lower courts have, rather than have enforcement come and go depending on who holds the presidency.

The consequences for same-sex couples are significant because DOMA blocks federal benefits to these spouses. When one partner of a New York couple that married in Canada died, the other partner had to pay more than $363,000 in estate taxes because under federal law she didn’t qualify as the “surviving spouse.” They had lived together for 40 years.

If she were to prevail, federal discrimination in states that have passed gay marriage laws would go by the wayside. So Washingtonians are watching this case closely. It would mean the end of discrimination with regard to taxation and federal benefits, such as those collected by surviving spouses under Social Security.

Another potential case for review involves a federal postal worker in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal, who successfully sued because she couldn’t add her spouse to her health care plan.

If these types of cases sound familiar, it’s because Washingtonians debated them for years, and finally outlawed discrimination by the state. It’s no more defensible if the feds do it.

Because lower courts have ruled against federal laws, the U.S. Supreme Court must address these issues to end the legal limbo. The sooner the better because delaying the decision benefits nobody. In fact, this Friday would be perfect.

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