Supreme Court Overturns Defense of Marriage Act, Sends Gay Marriage Debate to the States

Demonstrators wait in front of the Supreme Court to hear their ruling on gay marriage. Image from the New York Times.

Demonstrators wait in front of the Supreme Court to hear their ruling on gay marriage. Image from the New York Times.

The ruling essentially declared that the definition of marriage is up to the state governments. If a state wishes to allow same-sex couples to marry, then the federal government can’t deny those couples the legal benefits of marriage that other legally married couples in that state are entitled to from the federal government.

With that, the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that declared marriage was defined as being between one man and one woman as far as the federal government was concerned. The opinion of the court, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and delivered by a 5-4 vote, stated that “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…The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.”

The case, United States v. Windsor, arose in 2009 when Edith Windsor’s wife, Thea Spyer, died and left all of her money and possessions to her spouse. Windsor sued to claim federal tax-exemption status on this inheritance. The Supreme Court’s ruling upheld decisions by lower courts ordering the IRS to refund all the money Windsor had paid in inheritance taxes with interest. The ruling was split along ideological lines between liberal and conservative justices.

By declaring that the definition of marriage is a state matter, the ruling leaves in place 30 state constitutions and six state laws that ban same-sex marriage.

A separate ruling, however, has all but killed California’s own constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The case Hollingsworth v. Perry challenged Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that was approved by California voters amending the state constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. A federal district court ruled that the ballot measure violated the U.S. Constitution, and the state government chose not to appeal that decision. However, the activists who initially wrote and pushed for the ballot measure appealed in California’s name. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in this case (not decided along ideological lines) held that those activists couldn’t presume to speak for California and had suffered no harm by the lower court’s ruling. In doing so, the Supreme Court somewhat indirectly upheld the lower court’s decision – overturning Prop 8 and legalizing same-sex marriage in California – without actually ruling on the validity of same-sex marriage in principle or affecting same-sex marriage laws anywhere else.

Crowds of gay-rights activists waiting in front of the Supreme Court cheered and celebrated when they heard the rulings. President Obama also voiced his support for the decision.

Coincidentally, a gathering in Utah of supporters of traditional marriage happened to be meeting when the ruling was issued, and responded by reaffirming their commitment to keeping Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage intact. “The joyous news is that Utah stands unaffected,” said Republican State Rep. Lavar Christensen, one of the guest speakers.

Already, the two sides of the same-sex marriage debate are preparing for future battles in places like Illinois, Hawaii, Oregon, Ohio, and New Mexico. There is also still some question as to what happens to a same-sex couple that is married in one state moves to another state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages. For now, the Supreme Court has apparently had enough to say on the issue for now, as it has refused to hear two further cases on same-sex marriage issues.

Information from BBC News, Fox News, Huffington Post, New York Times, Reuters, Washington Post, CBC News, and Deseret News.

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