A divided U.S. Supreme Court gave a landmark victory to the gay-rights movement, striking down a federal law that denies benefits to same-sex married couples and clearing the way for weddings to resume in California.
The court stopped short of declaring a constitutional right for gays to marry, or even ruling directly on California’s voter-approved ban, as the justices considered the issue for the first time. California Governor Jerry Brown said counties will begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses as soon as an appeals court implements today’s ruling.
The decisions sustain the momentum that has grown behind same-sex marriage over the past decade. With a 5-4 procedural ruling in the California case, the court reinstated a judge’s order allowing gay marriages there. By striking down the core of the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act by a different 5-4 majority, the court rejected many of the justifications for treating same-sex and heterosexual couples differently.
That law “places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court in the federal marriage case. “The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects, and whose relationship the state has sought to dignify.”
The historic cases reached the justices as the gay marriage movement was achieving unprecedented success. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage, six of them in the last year.
“After years of struggle, the U.S. Supreme Court today has made same-sex marriage a reality in California,” Brown said in a statement. It will take about a month before the marriages can begin in California, according to San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office.
“It’s been a long road, many years, but gosh, it feels good to have love triumph over ignorance, to have equality triumph over discrimination,” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee told a cheering crowd at City Hall.
The Supreme Court “made clear today that you have a right to marry, that there is no basis for discrimination,” David Boies, one of the lawyers representing the challengers to California’s Proposition 8, said outside the high court.
The Supreme Court said the sponsors of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that banned gay marriage, lacked legal standing to appeal the trial judge’s order. California state officials had refused to defend the measure.
“The debate over marriage has only just begun,” Austin R. Nimocks, a lawyer for a group that supported Proposition 8 in the case, said in a statement. “Marriage -- the union of husband and wife -- will remain timeless, universal and special, particularly because children need mothers and fathers.”
The justices split along unusual lines in the California case, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan in the majority. Justices Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor said the court should have ruled on the constitutionality of the ban.
Hundreds of demonstrators, many carrying pro-gay-marriage signs and rainbow colored flags, crowded onto the steps of the Supreme Court, where members of the media camped out for three days to await the final rulings of the court’s term. Supporters crowded around the two California couples challenging the ban, chanting “thank you” and “we love you.” Tourists on buses and on foot slowed to take pictures of the scene.
When Kennedy announced the outcome in the Defense of Marriage Act case, one audience member squealed and several cried, wiping their eyes with tissues. Kennedy said the ruling was “confined to those lawful marriages” sanctioned by states.
The Defense of Marriage Act case divided the court along familiar lines. Joining Kennedy in the majority were Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. Dissenting were Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito.
Scalia, in a dissenting opinion joined by Thomas, said Congress can constitutionally draw distinctions between heterosexual and same-sex marriage.
“The Constitution neither requires nor forbids our society to approve of same-sex marriage, much as it neither requires nor forbids us to approve of no-fault divorce, polygamy or the consumption of alcohol,” Scalia wrote.
Without a uniform federal definition of marriage, he questioned what would happen to couples who marry in one state and move to another state that doesn’t recognize gay marriages.
“When the couple files their next federal tax return, may it be a joint one?” Scalia wrote.
President Barack Obama applauded the court for striking down the Defense of Marriage Act as a “victory for couples who have long fought for equal treatment under the law.” Obama’s statement was issued from Air Force One as he flew to Africa for a week-long visit.