WASHINGTON, D.C. — 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 Gov. 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,” 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 same-sex 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 officials had refused to defend the measure.
The justices split along unusual lines in that 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 California ban.
The decisions drew hundreds of demonstrators, many carrying pro-gay marriage signs and rainbow colored flags, to 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 began crying, wiping their eyes with tissues.
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 does not forbid the government to enforce traditional moral and sexual norms,” Scalia wrote. “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.”
In a statement issued from Air Force One, President Barack Obama applauded the court for striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and called it a “victory for couples who have long fought for equal treatment under the law.” Obama made his comments as he flew to Africa for a weeklong visit.
Obama telephoned to congratulate the four people who challenged the California ban. “Paul invited him to our wedding; he said OK,” Jeff Zarrillo of Burbank told reporters outside the Supreme Court, referring to his partner Paul Katami.
Companies including Apple and Morgan Stanley urged the Supreme Court to back gay-marriage rights.
More than 18,000 same-sex couples got marriage licenses in California in the five months between a state Supreme Court ruling that gay marriages were legal and the 2008 passage of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that effectively overturned that decision.
Support for gay marriage has soared in recent years. A Bloomberg National Poll released this month found that 52 percent of adults supported legalization, with 41 percent opposed. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
In challenging Proposition 8, former Republican U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson joined forces with Boies, his opponent from the Bush v. Gore case, which resolved the 2000 presidential election deadlock. The pair, representing two same- sex couples, set out to win a Supreme Court ruling establishing gay marriage as a constitutional right.
At the appeals court level, they instead won a narrower ruling with limited applicability beyond California’s borders. The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Proposition 8 violated the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by stripping same-sex couples of a right they once had — and that heterosexual couples would continue to possess.
Californians now back gay marriage by double-digit numbers, with 56 percent supporting it and 38 percent opposed, according to a poll released last month by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. That survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
California officials until now enforced Proposition 8, refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses even while opposing the ballot initiative in court.
Obama’s lawyers joined a New York widow in urging the court to strike down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA. Under the law, gay spouses couldn’t claim the federal benefits available to other married couples, including the rights to file a joint tax return and receive Social Security survivor benefits.
Congressional Republicans led by House Speaker John Boehner defended DOMA. They contended it promoted traditional marriage and, by extension, made it more likely that children will grow up in a nurturing environment.
The high court case concerned Edie Windsor, a New York resident. Windsor was fighting a $363,000 federal estate tax bill, imposed after the 2009 death of her same-sex spouse, saying that she wouldn’t have to pay if she were married to someone of the opposite sex. Windsor and Thea Clara Spyer were married in Canada in 2007.
Almost 300 employers urged the court to strike down DOMA, arguing that the law costs businesses by forcing them to set up parallel benefits systems for gay and heterosexual married employees. The group included Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Citigroup Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Pfizer Inc.
DOMA was approved 342-67 in the House of Representatives and 85-14 in the Senate before President Bill Clinton signed the measure into law. Clinton now opposes DOMA.
With assistance from Megan O’Neil and Roger Runningen in Washington and Alison Vekshin and Joel Rosenblatt in San Francisco.
© 2013, Bloomberg News