The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a landmark victory for gay rights on Wednesday by forcing the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in states where it is legal and paving the way for it in California, the most populous state.
As expected, however, the court fell short of a broader ruling endorsing a fundamental right for gay people to marry, meaning that there will be no impact in the more than 30 states that do not recognize gay marriage.
The two cases, both decided on 5-4 votes, concerned the constitutionality of a key part of a federal law, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), that denied benefits to same-sex married couples, and a voter-approved California state law enacted in 2008, called Proposition 8, that banned gay marriage.
The court struck down Section 3 of DOMA, which limited the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal benefits, as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
The ruling was a victory for President Barack Obama’s administration, which had decided two years ago it would no longer defend the law in court. Obama applauded the DOMA ruling and directed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to review all relevant federal laws to ensure that it is implemented.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, 76, appointed to the court by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1988, was the key vote and wrote the DOMA opinion, the third major gay rights ruling he has authored since 1996.
In a separate opinion, the court ducked a decision on Proposition 8 by finding that supporters of the California law did not have standing to appeal a federal district court ruling that struck it down. By doing so, the justices let stand the lower-court ruling that had found the ban unconstitutional.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the Proposition 8 opinion, ruling along procedural lines in a way that said nothing about how the court would rule on the merits. The court was unusually split, with liberals and conservatives in both the majority and the dissent.
By ruling this way on Proposition 8, the court effectively let states set their own policy on gay marriage. This means a debate is set to continue in various states via ballot initiatives, legislative action and litigation potentially costing millions of dollars on both sides of an issue that stirs cultural, religious and political passions in the United States as elsewhere.
The rulings come amid rapid progress for advocates of gay marriage in recent months and years. Opinion polls show a steady increase in U.S. public support for gay marriage.
Gay marriage advocates celebrated outside the courthouse. A big cheer went up as word arrived DOMA had been struck down. “DOMA is dead!” the crowd chanted, as couples hugged and cried.
Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, a gay couple from Burbank, California, who were two of the four plaintiffs in the Proposition 8 case, were both outside the courthouse.
“We are gay. We are American. And we will not be treated like second-class citizens,” Katami said.
He turned to Zarrillo, voice cracking and said: “I finally get to look at the man I love and say, ‘Will you marry me?'”
Before Wednesday, 12 of the 50 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia recognized gay marriage. Three of those dozen – Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island – legalized gay marriage this year. California would become the 13th state to allow it.
About a third of the U.S. population now lives in areas where gay marriage is legal, if California is included.
“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,” Obama, the first sitting president to endorse gay marriage, said in a written statement.
While the ruling on DOMA was clearcut, questions remained about the meaning of the Proposition 8 ruling for California. Proposition 8 supporters vowed to seek continued enforcement of the ban until litigation is resolved. But California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, said the justices’ ruling “applies statewide” and all county officials must comply with it.
“We are now faced with this unusual situation where we have some uncertainty,” said Andrew Pugno, one of the Proposition 8 proponents’ lawyers. He expressed satisfaction that the Supreme Court had “nullified” a San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that, if left intact, could have had set a precedent for other Western states in its jurisdiction.
Cyndi Lauper has released the following statement on today’s marriage equality rulings by the United States Supreme Court:
History has been made today and justice has prevailed. To all of you who have been waiting on the sidelines for years, for lifetimes, it’s a huge day. I am so, so happy for you.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of loving and committed gay couples and the so-called Defense of Marriage Act has been ruled unconstitutional. Not only that, but California’s Proposition 8 was struck down, restoring marriage equality to the state of California.
Both of these decisions not only impact the lives of gay couples, but of gay and transgender youth who struggle to find acceptance from their family and friends. Every step closer we get to equality ensures that these kids have the futures that they deserve and are entitled to.
Thank you so much to the inspiring plaintiffs, attorneys, and everyone across the country who have worked so hard for so many years. Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we keep working for full equality for all and to bring the freedom to marry for gay couples to the 37 states that still remain.