Edith Windsor, Gay Rights Pioneer, Dies at 88

Edith Windsor, whose Supreme Court case granted equal protection to married same-sex couples, has died at age 88.

Edith Windsor at D.C. Pride 2017
Edith Windsor, who died Tuesday at age 88, is seen here at the D.C. Pride March in 2017.

Edith Windsor, whose Supreme Court case struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), has died at age 88.

Windsor began her battle for equality in 2010 when she sued the United States federal government to recover $363,053 in estate taxes she was forced to pay following the death of her wife Thea Spyer.

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Windsor and Spyer were legally married in Canada in 2007. The couple, who resided in New York, was able to gain legal status for their marriage following a court decision in 2008. When Spyer passed away in 2009, Windsor sought to claim federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. Her claim was denied by the IRS, stating, that under DOMA, Windsor was not eligible to claim estate tax exemption.

Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which was enacted in 1996, stated that the term “spouse” was only applicable to marriages between a man and a woman.

After 2 years of fighting, Windsor achieved victory in 2012 when a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional and ordered the federal government to return the amount of estate tax she was forced to pay, plus interest. But her battle was far from over.

Following an Appeals Court decision that upheld the previous ruling, the case was eventually taken to the Supreme Court in 2013. United States v. Windsor asked the Supreme Court “whether Section 3 of DOMA violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection” for same sex partners.

The Supreme Court answered affirmatively to the proposed question, ruling on June 26, 2013 that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional and violated the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The majority ruling, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reads in part:

DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government. See U.S. Const., Amdt. 5; Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954).

When New York adopted a law to permit same-sex marriage, it sought to eliminate inequality; but DOMA frustrates that objective through a system-wide enactment with no identified connection to any particular area of federal law. DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code. The particular case at hand concerns the estate tax, but DOMA is more than a simple determination of what should or should not be allowed as an estate tax refund. Among the over 1,000 statutes and numerous federal regulations that DOMA controls are laws pertaining to Social Security, housing, taxes, criminal sanctions, copyright, and veterans’ benefits.

Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways. By its great reach, DOMA touches many aspects of married and family life, from the mundane to the profound. It prevents same-sex married couples from obtaining government healthcare benefits they would otherwise receive. It deprives them of the Bankruptcy Code’s special protections for domestic-support obligations. It forces them to follow a complicated procedure to file their state and federal taxes jointly. It prohibits them from being buried together in veterans’ cemeteries.

Edith Windsor, known by her friends and family as Edie, will long be remembered for her bravery and courage in the face of unlikely odds.

“I lost my beloved spouse Edie, and the world lost a tiny but tough as nails fighter for freedom, justice and equality. Edie was the light of my life. She will always be the light for the LGBTQ community which she loved so much and which loved her right back,” said Judith Kasen-Windsor, Edith’s second wife. The couple married in 2016 following Obergefell v. Hodges, which granted the right for all same-sex couples to marry in the United States.

Former President Barack Obama, who heralded Windsor’s victory as “a great day for Edie, and a great day for America” paid tribute to the civil rights icon in a statement released today.

“In my second inaugural address, I said that if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” Obama said. “And because people like Edie stood up, my administration stopped defending the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in the courts. The day that the Supreme Court issued its 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor was a great day for Edie, and a great day for America — a victory for human decency, equality, freedom, and justice. And I called Edie that day to congratulate her.”

“Two years later, to the day, we took another step forward on our journey as the Supreme Court recognized a Constitutional guarantee of marriage equality,” he added. “It was a victory for families, and for the principle that all of us should be treated equally, regardless of who we are or who we love.”

Former President Bill Clinton also spoke of Windsor’s death, saying on Twitter: “In standing up for herself, Edie also stood up for millions of Americans and their rights. May she rest in peace.”

Windsor’s death was first reported by The New York Times. The cause of her death has not yet been announced.



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