06/19/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2013

We Are Better Than DOMA

The so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has cast a long shadow on working families since it became federal law in 1996, long before any state recognized same-sex marriages.

Now, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to issue a decision [U.S. v. Windsor] on DOMA's constitutionality, LGBT families are anxiously hoping the Supreme Court will rule -- rightly -- that they have equal protection under the law.

On its face, DOMA is reprehensible. Crafted out of cynicism and fear of gay and lesbian Americans, the act ensures working people with same-sex spouses earn less, pay higher taxes on wages and benefits and have less access to basic protections for their families, including healthcare coverage and Social Security.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) earlier this year joined other labor unions collectively representing 20 million workers in filing amicus briefs in DOMA as well as California's Proposition 8.

SEIU's membership is comprised of working families of all sorts -- two parents, single parents, opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples. Nearly a decade ago, members committed to fighting for and securing equal protection for LGBT members in the workplace. Employers, too, recognize the workforce is diverse and denying protections and benefits to employees based on sexual orientation doesn't make good business sense.

DOMA and similar state laws like California's Proposition 8 put gay and lesbian couples at a severe economic disadvantage. Consider employer-provided healthcare coverage, a workplace protection that provides employees and their families greater access to critical care. Some employers don't extend health coverage to same-sex spouses. Even when they do, gay and lesbian workers don't receive the same tax treatment as heterosexual couples. For example, workers cannot deduct the cost of health premiums and deductibles for their same-sex spouse as opposite-sex married couples can. That added cost can be significant. A study by UCLA's Williams Institute estimates the average employee receiving domestic partner benefits pays $1,000 more in taxes than her heterosexual, married co-workers.

As a result of discrimination, biases and lack of equal protection, the nation's 5.4 million LGBT workers have higher rates of poverty than other workers, according to Movement Advancement Project research.

Further, DOMA strips gay and lesbian workers of the right provided to other American workers under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to take leave to care for a sick or dying spouse. At a time when families are already shattered by the illness or death of a spouse, DOMA can deliver a devastating financial blow. Among several penalties, DOMA denies same-sex spouses Social Security survivor benefits. According to a 2009 study, this leads to a loss of about $5,700 each year to surviving spouses. Surviving same-sex spouses must pay estate taxes on any inheritance, an often crippling cost that no heterosexual widow or widower faces. Surviving same-sex spouses who earned significantly less or perhaps stayed at home may have to live in poverty in their elder years due to this unequal treatment under the law.

Fortunately, the tide has been turning for quite some time. Twelve states and the District of Columbia now recognize marriages of all loving and committed couples, and several more are actively considering marriage equality.

But state laws aren't enough. As long as the federal DOMA stands, it will remain a barrier to true equality for every family. Within days, the Supreme Court will issue a decision that will be closely watched by gay and straight couples alike. They are counting on the Court to recognize that this law inflicts economic injury on families headed by same-sex couples and strike down DOMA once and for all.

As a country that counts equality among our basic values, we should never single out one group for harsher treatment. We're better than that.