Supreme Court rules DOMA unconstitutional, won't rule on Prop 8
June 26, 2013 7:44 PM
Charles Dharapak/Associated Press
Michael Knaapen, left, and his husband John Becker, right, embraced outside the Supreme Court in Washington today.
J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
Gay rights advocate Vin Testa waves a rainbow flag in front of the Supreme Court today.
By Tracie Mauriello and Ann Rodgers Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WASHINGTON -- A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday handed down a pair of landmark decisions that restore the right to gay marriage in California and require the federal government to extend benefits to same-sex couples who wed in states where it is legal.
The implications are sweeping for gay couples in 12 states and the District of Columbia, but have little effect in Pennsylvania and 37 other states that don't recognize same-sex marriage.
"Couples in those 38 states have the same legal status that they had yesterday. They can't get married under state law, and they don't have the access to federal benefits that hinge on marriage," said professor Doug NeJaime of Loyola School of Law in Los Angeles.
Butler native Kelly Close knows that, but it didn't dampen her celebration on the steps of the Supreme Court where she waved an American flag triumphantly.
"Today, a wrong was righted. I'm so proud of the Supreme Court for finally matching up with the values of the country, and I'm so glad all my friends now share equal rights," said Ms. Close, 21, who now lives in Washington, D.C.
"This is what we've been fighting for," said Ms. Close, who said she is straight but has attended numerous gay pride events to support friends.
Wednesday's decisions fell short of opening the doors to gay marriage nationwide and left in place a provision in the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, that allows a state not to recognize same-sex marriages from outside its borders.
It was a mixed result but a victory nonetheless for the boisterous crowd of thousands gathered on the high court's steps.
The pair of 5-4 decisions disappointed others, including religious groups and congressional Republicans who pledged to work to find other ways to protect traditional marriage.
Bishop David Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh said the rulings undermine lifelong, heterosexual marriage as the foundation of society.
"I have grave concerns over the threats to religious liberty and the ability of believers to express their faith in the public arena," he said, citing states in which Catholic Charities stopped facilitating adoptions because they were required to consider same-sex adoptive couples.
"While the Church does not in any way condone discrimination or prejudice against any persons, what is at stake when marriage is redefined is the very survival of the family: father, mother and especially children," he said.
Writing for the majority in United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307, Justice Anthony Kennedy said drafters of DOMA sought "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."
He wrote, "DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others." The four members of the court's liberal wing, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, joined.
Justice Kennedy wrote that the 1993 federal law's purpose was to demean, disparage, injure and stigmatize same-sex couples.
In a lengthy dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia disagreed.
"Favoring man-woman marriage no more 'demeans' and 'humiliates' other sexual relationships than favoring our Constitution demeans and humiliates the governmental systems of other countries," he said from the bench Wednesday.
Justice Scalia also blasted the majority for scarcely mentioning DOMA supporters' arguments for upholding the law. In oral arguments in March, they said procreation is the principle reason for marriage, and that gay couples cannot have biological children together.
Justice Scalia said the decision creates more confusion than clarity because it takes away DOMA's uniform federal definition of marriage.
He was joined by the court's more conservative members, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. They issued three dissents, in all.
The California case was also decided by 5-4, but with a different and very unusual alignment of justices. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion declining to rule on the constitutionality of Proposition 8. He was joined by Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan.
Chief Justice Roberts said the failure of officials in California to appeal the trial court decision against them was the end of the matter. Proponents of Proposition 8 had suffered only a "generalized grievance" when the ballot initiative they had sponsored was struck down, the chief justice wrote, and they were not entitled to represent the state's interests on appeal. The ruling in the case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, No. 12-144, erased the appeals court's decision striking down Proposition 8.
As a formal matter, the decision sent the case back to the appeals court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, "with instructions to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction." That means the trial court's decision stands.
Pittsburgh lawyer Brian C. Vertz, who specializes in family law, said same-sex couples still "face the challenge of living a life in limbo, being legally married in New York but not Pennsylvania."
It wouldn't be surprising, he said, if a conservative Congress or executive agency adopted a narrow interpretation of the ruling that might deprive same-sex couples of benefits because their marriage isn't recognized in the state where they reside, or because there is some legitimate basis for withholding a benefit.
Reaction was swift from advocates on both sides.
Austin R. Nimocks, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said the court got it wrong. It allowed states to force their definition of marriage on the federal government, he lamented.
"The federal government should be able to define what marriages is for federal law just as states need to be able to define what marriage is for state law," he said.
Liberal groups in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, lauded the decision.
"The striking down of DOMA brings about a joyous day for loving, married couples and their families," said Ted Martin, Equality Pennsylvania executive director, in a statement. "While this is a day of celebration for legally married same-sex couples, 37 states including Pennsylvania still treat gay and lesbian citizens and their children as unequal and second class. But work to win the freedom to marry here in the commonwealth will continue."
On the other side of the issue, Mr. Nimocks said his group's fight will continue, too.
"The debate over marriage has just begun," he said. "The court's decision does not silence the voices of Americans. Marriage -- the union of husband and wife -- will remain timeless, universal and special, particularly because children need mothers and fathers."
Brandon McGinley, Pittsburgh field director for the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which opposes gay marriage, said he hopes Wednesday's rulings will motivate Pennsylvanians to work to protect the state's definition of marriage, but he doesn't want to see hostility over the issue.
Opponents of same-sex marriage "should take this in stride and always react with charity and kindness," he said. "This is an issue that has not received the respectful public dialogue that it deserves."
Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a devout Catholic from Scranton, said striking down DOMA "was a critical step in strengthening equal rights for all."
He had been a longtime supporter of civil unions but, until recently, stopped short of supporting same-sex marriage. That changed in March after oral arguments in the DOMA and Proposition 8 cases when he announced his support for same-sex marriage.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Blair, meanwhile, was disappointed.
"Today, a handful of activist judges attempted to destroy traditional marriage and legislate from the bench," he said.
While many religious groups lamented the decisions, some churches and religious leaders celebrated them.
"The unmistakable movement toward civil marriage equality in the states over the past decade reflects the will of the people in those states to grant equal rights and dignity under the law to all married couples and families," said Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. "At the same time, the court's withholding of judgment on the ultimate constitutional question of whether a state may ban same-sex marriage reflects the fact that this conversation will continue to evolve in coming years."
But Michael Geer, the Pennsylvania Family Institute's president in Harrisburg, said the legal logic of the California case should disturb even proponents of same-sex marriage.
Voters had approved a ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage, but a lower court struck it down. The state refused to defend the initiative, and the Supreme Court ruled that a group of its supporters had no standing to defend the law when state officials refused.
"This sets democracy and our system of government on its head," Mr. Geer said. "The people have been completely disenfranchised. Whatever you may think about the definition of marriage, this ruling should frighten Americans who think they should have a voice in their government."
Meanwhile, the Pentagon already is preparing to implement the provisions of the DOMA decision.
"The Department of Defense intends to make the same benefits available to all military spouses -- regardless of sexual orientation -- as soon as possible. That is now the law of the land, and it is the right thing to do," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday.
Back on the courthouse steps, Joseph Chmielewski of Upper Dublin, Pa., said the country is a different place from the one he woke up in Wednesday morning.
"Up until this morning, if I got married any place in the country the federal government didn't have to recognize it," said the 22-year-old. "Now there's nothing different between me and all my straight friends."
He still can't get married in Pennsylvania, where gay marriage remains illegal, but if he marries elsewhere, he and his husband would receive the same federal benefits as married people.
Opponents of same-sex marriage were scarce Wednesday outside the court. One man stood across the street with a colorful sign about sodomy and another unfurled a banner reading "Marriage = 1 man + 1 woman."
Gwen Courtney, 70, of Fort Washington, Md., carried no sign but had plenty to say to a group of pastors proclaiming their support of same-sex marriage.
"This is like brimstone. God is angry with people trying to change God's constitution," she said. "I've cried on this. There are tears in my eyes seeing ministers out here going against God."
In phone calls from Air Force One, President Barack Obama congratulated plaintiffs in the cases and remarked that the decisions came down exactly 10 years after Lawrence v. Texas, when the court struck down laws making same-sex relationships illegal.
Gay marriage currently is legal in 12 states and the District of Columbia. Now that DOMA has been struck down, people married in those states will have the same federal rights and responsibilities as opposite-sex married couples.
Under DOMA, same-sex spouses could not be buried together in veterans' cemeteries, they had to follow complicated procedures to file taxes jointly, and they were taxed on health benefits some employers provided through domestic partner benefits.
Wednesday's ruling means they'll get those benefits and others now, but will also have new responsibilities. For example, same-sex spouses' income will now have to be included in calculations of federal financial aid, and assets of same-sex spouses will need to be reported on financial disclosure forms required of high-ranking federal officials.