Advocates of marriage equality for same-sex couples came out on top in two U.S. Supreme Court decisions handed down Wednesday.
But the justices stopped short of declaring that members of the same gender have a constitutionally protected right to wed. As a result, the bans on gay marriage that exist in more than 30 states stay in place.
A slim 5 to 4 majority pushed through both decisions backing same-sex marriage rights, including one that will enhance the rights of homosexual and lesbian couples who, in New York, have had the legal right marry since 2011.
The majority concluded that sections of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — signed into law in 1996 by then President Bill Clinton — violated the Constitution. The ruling clears the way for married same sex couples in New York and elsewhere across the country to obtain a host of federal benefits previously denied to them by DOMA, such as giving them the ability to file joint federal tax returns.
The DOMA decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, held that the statute was unconstitutional because it “singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty.” His opinion was joined by the court’s four most liberal justices: Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer.
The second ruling, more narrow in focus, overturned California’s Proposition 8, which banned same sex marriages in that state. In 2008, Califorinia voters had enacted the ballot measure known as Proposition 8, which limited marriages to those between one man and one woman. The Proposition 8 ruling did not have the often seen conservative/liberal divide. It was written by Chief Judge John G. Roberts Jr.
Once a federal appeals court lifts a stay on an order keeping Proposition 8 in place, California Gov. Jerry Brown said he wants all 58 county governments in the state to begin issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples.
The lawsuit successfully toppling DOMA was filed by a New York woman, Edith Windsor, now 83, who challenged the fact she had to pay more than more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes when her Canadian wife, Thea Spyer, died. Because the ruling makes her eligible for the spousal deduction, she is now expected to have that money refunded to her by the Internal Revenue Service.
In Cooperstown, gay rights advocate Katie Boardman, an elder at First Presbyterian Church, said she was delighted by the pair of rulings. SHe noted that the DOMA decision will have an immediate positive impact for same sex couples in New York, particularly as it pertains to their access to federal benefits that heterosexual couples get by virtue of being married.
“This is huge,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming. It’s very significant.”
She said the decision will also be beneficial for federal employees involved in same sex partnerships.
Otsego Town Board Member Carl Wenner, a conservative Republican opposed to gay rights, called the rulings “pathetic.”
“I’m not surprised at all that this court is bending over backwards for homosexuals,” said Wenner. “The whole idea of homosexual marriage is an oxymoron. The court is just another wing of government. It is continually getting more and more corrupt. You cannot be a seriously religious person and think that homosexuality is OK with God.”
In the DOMA decisoin, the court’s majority commented that for same sex couples who married after New York sanctioned their ability to wed, the new law “conferred upon them a dignity and a status of immense import.”
Jim Koury, the former Oneonta city clerk and the editor of Diversity Rules magazine, said the Supreme Court rulings represent “a monumental step” advancing the rights of gay Americans.
“DOMA being declared unconstitutional, brings to an end a very long fight that finally brings fairness and equity to those same sex couples legally married in that they now are accorded all the federal benefits of marriage that are available to heterosexual couples,” Koury said.
The New Yorkers Family Research Foundation said it was disappointed the justices knocked out DOMA.
“The public purpose of marriage is to bring men and women together to create stable, intact family structures in which each child can be raised by her own mother and father,” said the group’s president, Rev. Jason J. McGuire. “ That purpose is hindered — not furthered — by same-sex ‘marriage.’ ”
Nathan M. Schaef, the executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, called the rulings “historic” and underscore what he called steady progress in gay rights advances that have taken place since 2003, when the high court invalidated state laws criminalizing sodomy.
“We look forward to the day when this issue is put to rest for all Americans and marriage equality is secured across the entire country,” Schaefer said.
In the DOMA case, Justice Kennedy held that the court was not weighing in on whether same sex marriage is protected by the Constitution.
However, one of the court’s most conservative members, Justice Antonin Scalia, dissented from that viewpoint, opining that he believes the court is headed in the direction of striking down state bans on same sex marriage.
“No one should be fooled,” Scalia opined. “It is just a matter of listening and waiting for the other shoe to drop.”