WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court’s first rulings on same-sex marriage produced historic gains for gay rights: Full federal recognition of legally married gay couples and an opening for such unions to resume in the nation’s most populous state.
The divided court Wednesday stopped short of a more sweeping ruling that the fundamental right to marry must be extended to gay couples no matter where they live.
But in striking down a key part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the court declared that gay couples married in states where it is legal must receive the same federal health, tax, Social Security and other benefits that heterosexual couples receive.
In turning away a case involving California’s prohibition of same-sex marriage, known as Proposition 8, the justices left in place a lower court’s decision that the ban is unconstitutional. Gov. Jerry Brown, D, said he would order same-sex marriages to resume as quickly as possible.
With the addition of California, more than a third of Americans will live in a jurisdiction – 13 states and the District of Columbia – where same-sex marriage is sanctioned.
Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court’s four liberals in declaring unconstitutional DOMA’s prohibition on federal recognition of legally married couples – enacted when such unions were only theoretical.
“DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code,” wrote Kennedy, who was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Withholding federal recognition of same-sex married couples places them “in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage,” Kennedy wrote. “The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects … and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify.”
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
The decisions on the final day of the court’s term set off a loud celebration in front of the court’s marble plaza and elsewhere in the country.
Edith Windsor, a New Yorker who brought the suit against DOMA after she had to pay an estate tax following the death of her wife, Thea Spyer, said she burst into tears upon hearing the court’s decision.
“If I had to survive Thea, what a glorious way to do it, and she would be so pleased,” Windsor said at a news conference.
President Barack Obama, whose administration said it would not defend Section 3 of DOMA because it believed the provision was unconstitutional, called Windsor and the challengers of Proposition 8 to congratulate them.
In a statement written on Air Force One en route to Africa, Obama said, “This ruling is a victory for couples who have long fought for equal treatment under the law; for children whose parents’ marriages will now be recognized, rightly, as legitimate; for families that, at long last, will get the respect and protection they deserve; and for friends and supporters who have wanted nothing more than to see their loved ones treated fairly and have worked hard to persuade their nation to change for the better.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House Republican leadership defended DOMA “because the constitutionality of a law should be judged by the court, not by the president unilaterally.”
He said he was “obviously disappointed” by the decision, adding, “It is my hope that states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman.”
Kennedy’s decision Wednesday cited the principles of state autonomy, equal protection and liberty.
“The state’s power in defining the marital relation is of central relevance in this case,” not just because of federalism, Kennedy said, but because giving homosexuals the right to marry “conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import.”
In the end, Kennedy said, “DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment.”
Kennedy noted that the opinion was applicable only in those states where same-sex marriage is legal.
In his dissent, Scalia said the court’s ruling will raise practical problems: “Imagine a pair of women who marry in Albany and then move to Alabama, which does not ‘recognize as valid any marriage of parties of the same sex.’ … When the couple files their next federal tax return, may it be a joint one?”
Such a case does cause a problem for the Obama administration, which is now grappling with difficult questions about how to deliver federal benefits for same-sex couples living in states that do not have legal gay marriage.
Gay activists are pressuring Obama to use his executive authority to ensure that the full range of benefits, such as the right to file federal income taxes jointly or be exempt from the marriage estate tax, be granted to married same-sex couples no matter where they live.