The gay rights movement saw a significant victory at the Supreme Court Monday, even as the court dodged the fundamental issue of whether marriage is a constitutionally-protected right for all couples, gay or straight.
In a 5-4 ruling in United States v. Windsor, the court struck down a provision of the 17-year-old Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denies federal benefits — like Social Security benefits or the ability to file joint tax returns — to same-sex couples legally married.
“DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. Kennedy was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
At the same time, the court ruled 5-4 that the defendants in the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry, which considered the constitutionality of California's same-sex marriage ban (called Proposition 8), have no standing in court. Supporters of Prop. 8 brought the case to the Supreme Court after a lower court struck down the law but California's governor and attorney general declined to defend it. By dismissing the case on procedural grounds, the court passed up the opportunity to issue a significant ruling on the issue of marriage.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan.
The practical impact of dismissing the Prop. 8 case is limited. It leaves the lower court ruling striking down Prop. 8 in place, applying statewide at best.
The impact of the DOMA case, however, is clear. DOMA impacts around 1,100 federal laws, including veterans' benefits, family medical leave and tax laws. There are about 130,000 married same-sex couples in the United States today who up to this point were treated as unmarried as it pertained to those federal laws.
Monday's decisions represent the latest development in a dynamic and fast-moving national dialogue – largely taking place at the state level — over gay rights, and same-sex marriage in particular. Just this year, Minnesota, Delaware and Rhode Island adopted laws recognizing same-sex marriages, bringing the number of states that do so to 12. At the same time, 35 other states have laws or constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage.
The Supreme Court's first foray into the subject of same-sex marriage, while limited in impact, reflects the American public's growing acceptance of same-sex marriage. Just as the court is finally broaching the subject, a number of politicians at the federal level – both Democrats and Republicans – are taking a cue from the public and coming out in support of same-sex marriage. Even if the court had left DOMA completely in tact, it would have almost surely faced a political challenge in Congress. The debate over the constitutional right to marriage, meanwhile, will continue at the state level for now.