Supreme Court Reluctantly But Historically Elevates Same-Sex Marriage
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The U.S. Supreme Court opened the legal door to same-sex marriage Wednesday, issuing two rulings that did not confer broad new civil rights but established that same-sex marriage must be treated equally under federal law in the 13 states that allow it.
“The crowds are overwhelmingly ecstatic about this experience,” said Tom Goldstein, publisher of SCOTUSblog.com, describing the scene at the Courthouse. “The bottom line from the court seems to be straightforward. It was not going to announce fundamental rights for same-sex marriage, but it will uphold the rights of people who have been married… sometimes you have to listen to the music, not the individual notes.”
The Court’s majority sent the message that same-sex marriages and individuals deserve equal treatment. In the first case, it threw out a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), saying it was unconstitutional on equal protection grounds for the law to say that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. But it did not declare a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
In a second and narrower decision, the Court held that a private group did not have legal standing to defend California’s Proposition 8, a same-sex marriage ban that was overturned by a lower court. Same-sex marriages can now resume in California, making it the 13th state to recognize these marriage. Supporters in the state say that they are likely to sponsor a new ballot measure, making same-sex marriage legal, to remove the prospect of further legal fights by gay marriage opponents.
Supporters of marriage equality immediately hailed the decisions as big steps forward.
“Twelve years ago I came out to my parents. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done, and was not well received,” said Arshad Hasan, Executive Director of Democracy for America. “At the time, it was difficult to imagine them ever accepting this part of me. Two weeks ago, I married the man I love—and received the blessing of love from my father, who overcame his prejudices and preconceptions to take a huge step forward. Today, we as a country took a huge step forward. The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down DOMA is another milestone on the journey both my father and our country have taken: toward acceptance, equality, and love.”
“Today the nation took another historic step towards creating a more perfect union,” said Rick Jacobs, founder CourageCampaign.org, a California progressive coalition. “The judiciary has now caught up with the American public and the tremendous momentum our movement has had since the passage of Prop. 8 five years ago. Love should not be legislated or litigated.”
The Court’s rulings means that progress on marriage equality is moving ahead, but some big and immediate obstacles remain.
Federal law includes more than 1,000 laws and programs and entitlements affecting married couples. Same-sex married couples will now expect to be treated the same as heterosexual couples. But where couples live will initially be a key factor. In some programs and agencies, such as Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service, current rules would deny certain benefits unless couples reside in a state now recognizing same-sex marriage. Children in LGBT unions also face similar obstacles.
Other programs, such as military health care, face no such restriction. That means that the Obama administration and Congress will have to examine the fine print of those rules and make adjustments, which will take time.
Today, 13 states allow same-sex unions along with the District of Columbia, representing a third of the U.S. population. These states are: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota, Iowa, Washington—and now California as well. Marriage equality and GLBT rights will face a continuing march for equal status, although the language in the Court's DOMA ruling gives activists a new basis to challenge discriminatory state laws.