In two rulings that further enshrine gay rights, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key elements of the federal Defense of Marriage Act on Wednesday and, by refraining to uphold a ban, allowed for a resumption of same-sex marriages in California.
In practical terms, the DOMA ruling means same-sex couples lawfully married in the District of Columbia and the 12 states that have sanctioned same-sex marriage cannot be denied federal benefits such as health care, custody, pensions and survivor benefits that are routine for both members of conventional marriages.
Across the United States, gays celebrated the latest victory in a campaign for equal rights that – while far from over – has swept away centuries of secrecy and decades of treatment as second-class citizens. A half-century after landmark civil-rights decisions ended discrimination against African Americans, Wednesday’s Supreme Court rulings did much the same for same-sex couples.
Lawmakers and courts have lagged behind momentous shifts in public attitudes.
President Barack Obama hailed the court’s rulings and condemned the contentious Defense of Marriage Act that is still vigorously defended by many conservatives and some on the Christian right. The 1996 law restricted marriage to being between a man and a woman.
“It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people,” Mr. Obama said. “The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it.”
Until last year, Mr. Obama delayed his public support for gay marriage. The President’s shift followed an extraordinarily rapid transformation of U.S. public opinion on the issue. Clear and growing majorities now back same-sex marriage. Barely four in 10 Americans did so five years ago. Among those under 35, support rockets to more than two thirds. Yet only a generation ago, big majorities opposed not just gay marriage but any sort of legitimacy for same-sex couples.
The “ruling means stronger families and communities across our nation: Millions of same-sex married couples will gain access to all of the rights and responsibilities associated with marriage,” said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
However, she warned, much remains to be done. “Those legally married same-sex couples, and widows or widowers, who have moved to – or now live in – a state that discriminates against their marriages may face barriers to their federal marital protections,” Ms. Carey said. “We will fight to ensure couples have access to vital benefits.”
The rulings did not address whether gays have a constitutional right to marry and thus will have no impact on the more than 30 states that do not allow same-sex marriages or recognize the legality of those who move from states where they are legal.
Once same-sex marriages resume in California, more than a third of Americans will reside in states where it is legal.
While the two decisions split, 5-4, they were narrow in their scope and neither ruled on whether it is lawful for states to allow – or ban – same-sex marriages. In the DOMA case, the court ruled that same-sex marriages cannot be considered second-class. In the second case, the Supreme Court, by declining to decide a case from California, effectively allowed the resumption of same-sex marriages in the nation’s most populous state.
Outside the Supreme Court on a sweltering summer morning Wednesday, gay couples and activists cheered when the ruling was announced.
“DOMA is dead,” chanted the crowd, amid scenes of tears and emotion.
Hours later, at noon, the bells of the National Cathedral in Washington pealed to ring in “the extension of federal marriage equality to all the same-sex couples modelling God’s love in lifelong covenants,” said Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the cathedral.
Among those awaiting the decision was a California couple, plaintiffs in one of the cases that finally reached the highest court in the land.
Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, from Burbank, Calif., exulted in the rulings.
“We are gay. We are American. And we will not be treated like second-class citizens,” said Mr. Katami. Turning to his partner, he said: “I finally get to look at the man I love and say, ‘Will you marry me?’”
En route to Africa aboard Air Force One, the President issued a statement denouncing DOMA, which had been signed into law by the last Democratic president Bill Clinton. It’s “discrimination enshrined in law,” Mr. Obama said, adding: “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.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy, appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1988 but now considered the swing vote on a court that has moved to the right, wrote the majority 5-4 opinion. In the DOMA case, he was joined by the four so-called liberals on the nine-member court.
“Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways,” Justice Kennedy, 76, wrote. It was his third major opinion on the law since DOMA was passed in 1996.
Chief Justice John Roberts, along with associate justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, dissented.
In his toughly worded argument, part of which he read from the bench, Justice Scalia dismissed the majority opinion as “legalistic argle-bargle” and slammed the majority for “declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency.”
He went on: “It is enough to say that 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.”
DOMA defenders vowed to battle on. “The court’s decision does not silence the voices of Americans,” said Austin Nimocks, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group.
“Marriage – the union of husband and wife – will remain timeless, universal and special, particularly because children need mothers and fathers.”
Some leading lawmakers still decried the rulings. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, said he was “obviously disappointed in the ruling” and said the “robust national debate over marriage” would continue.