Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Portion of DOMA, Passes on Prop 8– Gay Marriages to Resume in California
In a pair of historic decisions, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional, and dismissed a challenge to a lower court’s ruling against Proposition 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban.
In a decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court ruled 5-4 in United States v. Windsor to strike down a key section of DOMA, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. The law effectively defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman in the eyes of the federal government, restricting federal marriage benefits and mandating inter-state recognition of only heterosexual marriages.
The main issue in the case was whether Section 3 of DOMA, which codified federal non-recognition of same-sex marriages in matters including spousal benefits, immigration and filing of joint tax returns, violates the Fifth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law. The justices have ruled that it does.
“The federal statute is invalid,” Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, “for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”
“DOMA’s unusual deviation from the usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage here operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with the federal recognition of their marriages,” Kennedy wrote.
Kennedy was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer. Dissenting were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
In his dissent, Chief Justice Roberts asserted that the Court did not have jurisdiction to consider the case.
“The Court does not have before it, and the logic of its opinion does not decide, the distinct question whether the States… may continue to utilize the traditional definition of marriage,” Roberts wrote.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who also dissented, slammed the majority’s rationale as “legalistic argle-bargle.” Scalia also lamented what he described as the demonization of those like himself who oppose equality for gay and lesbian Americans.
“It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race,” Scalia wrote. The conservative justice also took a swipe at “homosexual sodomy” and compared LGBT marriage equality to “polygamy.”
“The Constitution neither requires nor forbids us to approve of no-fault divorce, polygamy or the consumption of alcohol,” he wrote.
Broadly, federal marriage benefits can now be granted to same-sex couples who are legally married in states which allow such unions. In the case at hand, Edith Windsor, an 84-year-old New York woman, will be refunded the $363,053 she paid in estate taxes following the death of Thea Spyer, her wife and partner of more than four decades. Following the Court’s DOMA ruling, Windsor now qualifies for the federal tax exemption for surviving spouses.
“What a way to celebrate the life of my beloved Thea,” Windsor rejoiced after the ruling was announced.
Following the Court’s decision, President Barack Obama issued a statement celebrating the ruling.
“This was discrimination enshrined in law,” Obama said of DOMA. “It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people. The Supreme Court has righted a wrong, and our country is better off for it. We are a people who declared that we are all created equal– and the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
Minutes later, the Court announced another historic decision, effectively striking down Proposition 8, California’s voter-approved same-sex marriage ban, as unconstitutional. In yet another 5-4 decision, the justices ruled in Hollingsworth v. Perry that the ‘traditional’ marriage activists placed Prop 8 on California’s ballot had no constitutional authority or standing to defend the law in federal court after the measure was struck down by a federal judge in San Francisco last year. The decision opens the door to the resumption of same-sex marriages in California.
“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “We decline to do so for the first time here.”
Roberts was joined in the majority by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. Dissenting were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonya Sotomayor.
The rather narrow ruling sends the case back to California. Federal and state courts, as well as top state officials, have stated that same-sex marriage is an issue of equality. Last year, the Ninth US Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that Prop 8 was unconstitutional.
“Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in that majority opinion. “The Constitution simply does not allow for laws of this sort.”
The plaintiffs in the Prop 8 case were elated by the Court’s decision.
“Today we can go back to California and say to our children, all four of our boys, that your family is just as good as anybody else’s family,” Kristin Perry, who was accompanied by her partner Sandra Stier, told reporters at a press conference on the steps of the Supreme Court. “Now we will be married, and we will be equal.”
“We look forward to using the words ‘marry’ and ‘husband’ because those words do matter. They are important,” added Jeffrey Zarrillo, who along with his partner Paul Katami were plaintiffs in the case.
Other LGBT Californians and their supporters also welcomed today’s rulings.
“What I found so inexplicable is that states throughout the heartland like Minnesota and Iowa have long passed marriage equality legislation but California, which is thought to be so progressive, has been behind the times on this,” marriage equality supporter Paul Pratt told reporters at the corner of Market and Castro Streets in San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro District after the Prop 8 ruling was announced. “Hopefully this brings us up to speed.”
But supporters of ‘traditional’ marriage lamented the Court’s decisions.
“Today is a tragic day for marriage and our nation,” the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement. “The Supreme Court has dealt a profound injustice to the American people by striking down in part the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The Court got it wrong. The federal government ought to respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so. The preservation of liberty and justice requires that all laws, federal and state, respect the truth, including the truth about marriage.”
“Time is not on the side of those seeking to create same-sex ‘marriage,'” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group, said in a statement. “As the American people are given time to experience the actual consequences of redefining marriage, the public debate and opposition to the redefinition of natural marriage will undoubtedly intensify.”
Other faith-based groups welcomed the rulings.
“We… are thrilled [by] the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the definition of marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman,” Ani Zonneveld, president of Muslims for Progressive Values, said in a statement. “The Quran defines marriage as the union of two souls. We congratulate the Supreme Court for affirming the universal values of justice and equality for all.”
“This is a great day for marriage equality, for all couples, gay or straight, because the Supreme Court has underscored the central point that marriage is ultimately about deep commitment between two people who love one another, not prescribed gender roles,” Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister of the United Church of Christ’s Local Church Ministries, said. “While we still yearn for the day when equal marriage is fully legal, granted and protected in all 50 states, this is a great step forward toward full freedom and recognition for LGBT people by the US federal government.”
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