The Obama administration opposes the law as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the issue this term. The administration's decision not to support the law left it to congressional Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, to spearhead its defense.
A Supreme Court ruling could alter the legal climate for gay couples and have significant tax consequences. Even when legally married in their home states, same-sex couples currently aren't considered married for federal tax purposes — either for income or for estates — because of the current law.
"They will typically file joint returns for state purposes and separate returns for federal purposes, so obviously a lot more work," said Theodore Seto, a tax professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Because same-sex spouses aren't treated as married for federal tax purposes, when one spouse dies assets don't transfer to the survivor free of estate taxes. With heterosexual married couples, the estate tax is applied only upon the death of the second spouse.
The legislation the Senate voted on today includes a provision prohibiting discrimination against gays in grant programs for domestic violence victims.
Advocates say that explicit protections are necessary to clarify that programs serving gay and transgender victims are eligible to receive funds authorized under the law.
The name of the law, the Violence Against Women Act, can cause confusion particularly over the eligibility of services for gay men, said Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, an organization that advocates for services for gay victims of domestic violence.
Including non-discrimination language "gives everyone — legislators, service providers, grant administrators and the survivors of violence who are experiencing this violence every day — a clear message that they are included in this legislation and if they reach out for help, someone will be there to help them," Stapel said in an interview.