By Sam Baker - 06/27/13 12:25 AM EDT
The Supreme Court dramatically expanded the rights of same-sex couples Wednesday, striking down federal restrictions and clearing the way for gay couples to marry in California.
With a throng of advocates waiting outside in sweltering heat, the court delivered long-awaited decisions in a pair of historic cases on marriage rights.
Taken together, the decisions held that the federal government cannot deny benefits to legally married couples, but the justices strenuously avoided even a narrow ruling on state marriage laws.
“DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells these couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition,” Kennedy wrote.
President Obama praised the decision, saying it “righted [a] wrong” in federal law.
“The laws of our land are catching up to the fundamental truth that millions of Americans hold in our hearts: when all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free,” Obama said in a statement.
The court’s rulings accompany a dramatic shift in public and political attitudes toward same-sex marriage. Polls show that increasingly large majorities of voters support same-sex marriage rights. And, not including California, 12 states have legalized it, including three of them since March, when the court heard oral arguments in the marriage cases.
Most legal observers believed the shift in public opinion would nudge the justices toward narrowly expanding same-sex couples’ rights while preserving the states’ ability to set their own laws. Tuesday’s decisions indicated that the justices are indeed willing to let the issue continue to play out through democratic processes in the states.
In a second 5-4 decision, the court avoided even its narrowest options for ruling on the merits of Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The justices said they could not rule in the case because Proposition 8’s defenders did not have legal standing to defend the law in court.
Kennedy dissented from that decision and said the court could have ruled on Proposition 8, even though he suggested during oral arguments that the court made a mistake by agreeing to hear the case.
Although the court did not directly rule on Proposition 8, its decision appeared to clear the way for same-sex couples to marry in California. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) directed all of the state’s county clerks to begin granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The rulings stopped far short of declaring that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, as some gay-rights advocates wanted.
But most people did not expect the court to go that far in its first rulings on the issue, and Wednesday’s outcome was undeniably a victory for supporters of same-sex marriage.
Congressional Republicans were dismayed by the rulings. Conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said he would push for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who organized DOMA’s legal defense, was more subdued.
“While I am obviously disappointed in the ruling, it is always critical that we protect our system of checks and balances,” Boehner said. “A robust national debate over marriage will continue in the public square, and it is my hope that states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman.”
The court made a point to say its decision did not affect state laws defining marriage but rather was limited to DOMA, a federal law the court said was designed primarily to discriminate.
“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,” Kennedy wrote.
The court’s liberal wing — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — joined Kennedy’s opinion.
The majority did not broach the most sweeping questions about whether DOMA violated same-sex couples’ constitutional rights, instead striking down the law’s centerpiece as an inappropriate federal overreach into an area that has traditionally belonged to the states.
But the decision drew heavily on much bigger themes, evoking broad concepts of liberty. DOMA “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples” and serves to “degrade” certain marriages, Kennedy said.
Justice Antonin Scalia, in a scathing dissent, accused the majority of trying to “maintain the illusion of the Act’s supporters as unhinged members of a wild-eyed lynch mob.”
He said the tone of the court’s ruling suggested that state laws barring same-sex marriage probably will not fare much better than DOMA if and when they reach the Supreme Court.
“I promise you this: The only thing that will ‘confine’ the Court’s holding is its sense of what it can get away with,” Scalia wrote.
The challenge to DOMA was filed by Edith Windsor, a New York widow whose wife left everything to her at her death. But because Windsor’s spouse was a woman, DOMA made her unable to claim an exemption from the estate tax — even though New York recognized their marriage.
“DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect,” the court held.
As a practical matter, the court’s DOMA ruling will make many federal benefits available immediately to same-sex couples in the states where same-sex marriage is legal.
Obama said Wednesday that he has ordered his administration to begin a thorough review of federal regulations to determine which benefits are affected.
Although the effects of DOMA’s demise are clear-cut for certain benefits, such as military burials and tax filings, implementing the court’s ruling will still require some judgment calls from the administration.
It is also not clear how it will apply to same-sex couples who married legally but now live in a state that does not recognize their marriage.
A separate section of DOMA says that states do not have to recognize each other’s definitions of marriage. That provision was not before the court, and it remains in place.
Some Democrats and gay-rights activists, however, said they will push Congress to repeal the remainder of DOMA.
“We should celebrate today — it’s a great day — but our work is not yet over,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) told reporters in the Capitol. “We still need to wipe DOMA in its entirety off the books.”
— Mike Lillis contributed.
— Published 10:02 a.m. and updated at 8:25 p.m.