On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5 to 4 decision (United States v. Windsor), declared unconstitutional part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which defined marriage solely as a legal union between a man and a woman. This landmark case had its roots here in the Village with the 1963 meeting of Edith S. Windsor and Thea Clara Spyer at the Portofino Restaurant on Thompson Street, as shown on the GVSHP Civil Rights and Social Justice map.
Edith “Edie” Windsor was born in Philadelphia in 1929 to a Russian Jewish immigrant family. She graduated from Temple University and later moved to New York City to pursue a master’s degree in mathematics at New York University. She eventually became one of the first female senior systems programmers at IBM. Thea Clara Spyer was born in Amsterdam in 1931 to a Jewish family that fled to the U.S. to escape the Holocaust before the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands. She was expelled from Sarah Lawrence College after a guard caught her kissing another woman, but later received her bachelor’s degree from the New School for Social Research, and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the City University of New York and Adelphi University, respectively. Windsor and Spyer began dating after meeting at Portofino in 1963. Spyer proposed in 1967 with a diamond brooch, fearing Windsor would be stigmatized at work if her colleagues knew about her relationship.
The couple married in Canada in 2007, and when Spyer died in 2009, she left her entire estate to Windsor. Windsor sued to have her marriage recognized in the U.S. after receiving a large tax bill from the inheritance, seeking to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was enacted on September 21, 1996, and defined marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman, and allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states. United States v. Windsor was a ground-breaking civil rights case in which the Supreme Court held that restricting U.S. federal interpretation of “marriage” and “spouse” to apply only to opposite-sex unions is unconstitutional. As stated in the Court decision:
Its (DOMA) unusual deviation from the tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with federal recognition of their marriages. This is strong evidence of a law having the purpose and effect of disapproval of a class recognized and protected by state law. DOMA’s avowed purpose and practical effect are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriage made unlawful by the unquestioned authority of the States. DOMA’s history of enactment and its own text demonstrate that interferences with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages, conferred by the States in the exercise of their sovereign power, was more than an incidental effect of the federal statute. It was its essence.
This Supreme Court case helped lead to the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. when on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that state-level bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. Edie Windsor died two years later on September 12, 2017.