Supreme Court overturns DOMA, giving equal rights to same-sex couples; gay marriage likely to resume in California.
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued two landmark rulings affecting the future of same-sex marriage in the United States, effectively striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and upholding a lower court ruling in California that opens the door for legal same-sex marriages to resume there.
In a 5-4 ruling, the justices overturned part of the Defense of Marriage Act, also known as DOMA, the 1996 law that governs how legally-married same-sex couples are treated in matters of federal law, a decision that means legally married same-sex couples will receive the same federal protections and benefits as heterosexual couples.
Gay marriage supporters, opponents react to rulings
In a second major decision, the court cleared the way for gay marriage to resume in California, ending the battle over Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage there in 2008 and has been the subject of an ongoing legal back-and-forth ever since. But the ruling was based on narrow legal considerations and would not set a precedent for gay marriage bans in other states. A 5-4 majority led by Chief Justice John Roberts ruled that supporters of Prop 8 did not have "standing" before the court to defend the law when the state of California declined to do so.
"We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to. We decline to do so for the first time here," Roberts wrote in the majority opinion in the case, Hollingsworth v. Perry.
The decision vacates the appeals court ruling holding the measure unconstitutional, but appears to leave intact a district judge's ruling that also found the measure unconstitutional. The 5-4 decision did not split along familiar ideological lines. Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia joined with Roberts, as did liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. Justice Anthony Kennedy dissented with conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, as well as liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
"We will be equal to every other family in California," said Kris Perry, one of the women whose legal case led to the Supreme Court decision.
Click image to see: State-by-state laws regarding gay marriage
The ruling is likely to result in same-sex marriages going forward in California, but additional litigation is expected about the scope and validity of the district court's ruling. The high court said nothing about the validity of gay marriage bans in California and roughly three dozen other states.
But the court's ruling on DOMA will likely be more significant for supporters of marriage equality.
More than 1,000 federal laws and programs affect the rights of married couples — from whether they can file joint federal tax returns to whether one partner who is a U.S. citizen can help a non-citizen spouse get the right to live and work in the United States. In 1996, a Republican Congress and a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, enacted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which says that for the purposes of all those federal laws, marriage means a man and a woman.
Kennedy, long considered a swing vote on key issues before the court, wrote the majority opinion dismantling that law as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The court's conservatives — Roberts, along with Scalia, Thomas, and Alito — dissented.
"DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment," Kennedy wrote for the majority in the case, United States v. Windsor.
The conservatives' dissent focused on the question of whether the court should have been considering the case in the first place, a position that telegraphed the narrow ruling on the California case.
The Supreme Court rulings come amid rapid progress for advocates of gay marriage in recent months and years in the United States and internationally. Opinion polls show a steady increase in U.S. public support for gay marriage.
Gay marriage is an issue that stirs cultural, religious and political passions in the United States as elsewhere. Gay marriage advocates celebrated outside the courthouse, Reuters reported. An enormous cheer went up as word arrived that DOMA had been struck down. "DOMA is dead!" the crowd chanted, as couples hugged and cried.
The DOMA case stems from an elderly New York woman's challenge to paying estate taxes on the money she inherited from her same-sex partner — a bill she wouldn't have had to pay if her partner were a man. But the basic question is whether it's constitutional for Congress to pass and enforce any law that treats same-sex and opposite-sex couples differently.
The Supreme Court was also the final stop for the years-long California battle. The state made gay marriage legal in 2008 and thousands of gay couples married during a 5-month period that year, but opponents marshaled their resources to pass a ballot initiative — known as Prop 8 — that changed the state constitution and banned gay marriage. The state supreme court upheld the amendment in the face of a legal challenge, but a federal appellate court ruled it violates the U.S. Constitution, sending the issue to the nation's highest court this year.
The California case famously brought together two former adversaries who teamed up in support of gay marriage: Democrat David Boies and Republican Ted Olson, who faced each other in the Bush-Gore election dispute before the Supreme Court in 2000.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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