The Supreme Court issued rulings on two landmark marriage equality cases on Wednesday, striking down a federal law that denies federal benefits to same-sex couples married in states that recognize gay marriage and allowing a lower court ruling that struck down California’s same-sex marriage ban to stand.
The high court avoided making a decision on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans in California and dozens of other states and instead dismissed the California case due to an issue of standing. The decision affirms a sweeping lower court ruling that struck down California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage in 2010 and the state will soon join 12 others that currently recognize same-sex marriage.
Striking Down DOMA
In a 5-4 ruling, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining four liberal justices in the majority, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and extending federal rights and benefits to those couples. The Justice Department refused to defend DOMA in court after the Obama administration declared it unconstitutional in 2011.
“By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment,” Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority.
Kennedy also wrote that DOMA “demeans” gay and lesbian couples and “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by [those] couples.”
Dissenting in the DOMA case were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Writing in dissent, Scalia argued that the court had no power under the Constitution to invalidate “democratically adopted legislation.”
A different section of DOMA, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, was not before the court.
Gay Marriage Returns to California
The California case – originally filed on behalf of two gay couples who wish to marry – challenged the state’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage, which a US district court in California and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals both found to be unconstitutional on different grounds.
The Supreme Court sidestepped its chance to agree with a lower court and call on the Constitution to strike down the California ban and similar bans in dozens of other states. Such a decision could have established marriage equality across the country. Instead, the high court found that Proposition 8’s supporters, who stepped in to defend the ban after top California officials refused to do so, did not have standing to appeal a decision handed down by a trial judge in 2010. Therefore, the justices found that the case was not properly before them.
The Supreme Court’s decision vacates the Ninth Circuit ruling but upholds a San Francisco judge’s sweeping 2010 ruling that declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional, and gay couples in California should be able to marry within weeks. California Gov. Edmund Brown is already working to expedite the process.
The battle for same-sex marriage rights that reached its climax at the Supreme Court this year began more than a decade ago in California. Featuring two couples and their families as well as ample courtroom drama that inspired a star-studded Broadway play, the case dove into the heart of what marriage means in America.
“Sandy and I want to say how happy we are, not only to be able to return to California and finally get married, but to be able to say to children in California that no matter where you live, no matter who your parents are, no matter what family you are in: you are equal, you are as good as your friends’ parents and as your friends,” said plaintiff Kris Perry, who was joined at the Supreme Court by her fiancé Sandy Stier.
The ruling comes just days before LGBT Americans from around the country will celebrate Pride in San Francisco.
The legal battle in California began in 2008, when the state’s Supreme Court ruled that a same-sex marriage ban approved by voters in 2000 was discriminatory and struck it down. About 18,000 same-sex couples legally wed in the state until November 2008, when voters narrowly approved Proposition 8, which once again banned same-sex marriage in California.
Marriage equality advocates quickly challenged Proposition 8 but the California Supreme Court upheld the ban. An all-star legal team, including David Boies and Theodore Olsen, who famously argued against each other in Bush v. Gore, then brought a federal challenge to the ban on behalf of Perry, Stier and another couple whose marriage plans had been canceled by Proposition 8.
Throughout the legal battle, Proposition 8 proponents argued that the traditional definition of marriage furthered society’s interests in childrearing and procreation and that the courts should not intervene with a law passed with the support of the voting public.
Marriage rights advocates, however, argued that the courts should protect the minority rights of lesbian and gay couples and that allowing them to marry would not interfere with the rights of straight couples or make it more likely that they would act irresponsibly.
In August 2010, judge Vaughn Walker of the US District Court for Northern California issued a sweeping ruling striking down the ban and establishing gays and lesbians as deserving protection under the equal protection clause of the Constitution.
“Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license,” Vaughn wrote in his sweeping ruling against the ban. “Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.”
Walker’s ruling, which now stands under the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the case on standing, cut through arguments made by Proposition 8 proponents, stating that their claims were based on “stereotypes assuming gays are inferior.”
The DOMA case is United States v. Windsor and the Proposition 8 case is Hollingsworth v. Perry.