Defense of Marriage Act

UNITED STATES—On Wednesday, June 26, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act while also rejecting an appeal of California’s Proposition 8, a decision that effectively allows same-sex marriage in the state of California.

In a historic, controversial day at the nation’s high court, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of overturning the Defense of Marriage Act as well as voting 5-4 in favor of rejecting the Proposition 8 appeal. The Supreme Court’s historic rulings provided a huge boost of momentum in the fight for gay and lesbian rights across the nation as the total number of states that allow same-sex marriage rises to 13.

The Supreme Court overruled a crucial part of DOMA that denies legally married same-sex couples the same federal benefits provided to heterosexual couples. This section of DOMA would deny tax, health and pension benefits to same-sex couples in states where they can legally marry. Questions arose as to whether the federal government has the power to prohibit these benefits to legally married same-sex couples and whether the federal act violated the equal protection guaranteed to these couples under the Fifth Amendment.

The key plaintiff in the case of “The United States v. Windsor” is Edith “Edie” Windsor, 84, who married Thea Spyer in Canada in 2007 after 40 years into their relationship. Spyer passed away in 2009. Though the courts of New York recognized same-sex marriages performed in other countries, the federal government did not. After the death of Spyer, Windsor was forced to file an estate tax bill, which required payment higher than those placed upon other married heterosexual couples. Windsor sued the federal government as a result.

Those that ruled in favor of overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 with bipartisan support, were Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Those dissenting were Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito.

In a statement before the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated, “Although Congress has great authority to design laws to fit its own conception of sound national policy, it cannot deny the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.”

Justice Antonin Scalia, in opposition, replied in rebuttal, “Some will rejoice in today’s decision, and some will despair at it; that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many. But the court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better. I dissent.”

Whereas the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act spoke to the high court’s consideration of the Fifth Amendment, the Supreme Court’s rejection of an appeal of California’s Proposition 8 offered little in the way of a grand statement from the court on the issue of same-sex marriage rights. By choosing not to rule on the case, the Supreme Court chose to bypass the debate entirely.

In the the Proposition 8 case of “Hollingsworth v. Perry,” the argument arose in regards to whether the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection prevents states from defining marriage to exclude same-sex couples. Furthermore, questions extended the debate to whether a state can revoke same-sex marriage through referendum once the state has already recognized the marriage.

Opting to not rule on the issues, the Supreme Court ruled on “standing” which asks if those who brought the case to the court were entitled to do so. By dismissing the case, however, the Supreme Court is allowing the restoration of same-sex marriage in California.

California voters approved Prop 8 in 2008 with a 52 percent majority after the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriages. The measure stalled any gay and lesbian marriages in progress, but Prop 8 was later ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court.

Among those initially against the measure were Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, who argued that the state’s proposition discriminated against them on grounds of their sexuality. The Burbank couple were present in the Supreme Court’s ruling; also present were plaintiffs Kristin Perry and Sandy Stier.

Those who ruled in favor of rejecting California’s Proposition 8 were Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. Those in dissent were Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel A Alito and Sonia Sotomayor.

Chief Justice John Roberts stated, “We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend a state statute when state officials have chosen not to.”

In response, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “What the court fails to grasp or accept is the basic premise of the initiative process. And it is this. The essence of democracy is that the right to make law rests in the people and flows to the government, not the other way around. Freedom resides first in the people without need of a grant from government… In California and the 26 other states that permit initiatives and popular referendums, the people have exercised their own inherent sovereign right to govern themselves. The court today frustrates that choice.”

President Obama also weighed on the issue. On his Twitter account, his staff posted, “Today’s DOMA ruling is a historic step forward for #MarriageEquality. #LoveIsLove.” The Obama Administration urged the Supreme Court last year to strike down Proposition 8.

Advocates for gay and lesbian rights cheered upon hearing the news of the Supreme Court’s rulings while also noting how much more work their causes demanded. In a statement, The Human Rights Campaign stated, “While a joyous milestone, these victories nonetheless throw into sharp relief the uneven progress for LGBT people around the country—a landscape where states like California are rapidly advancing toward equality, but progress in many other places remains stagnant.”

The American Civil Liberties Union chimed in with their own statement, “It’s a monumental victory for Edie Windsor, for married same-sex couples, and for the bedrock American value of equality… Each of us – gay and straight – owes Edie a great deal for making our country more free, more equal, more fair – in short, more American today.”

The chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance also released his own statement in reaction to the news of the Supreme Court’s rulings. “No matter how any of us feel about the outcomes in these cases, one thing is true: the Supreme Court has no authority when it comes to the nature of marriage. That authority belongs to the creator, whom our founders declared is the source of all our right,” Reverend Rob Schenck said.

“Today’s decisions are an invitation to look at the reality of same-sex couples and families differently, through the lens of God’s love, to seek and minister with grace and mercy to all people. The gospel is open to all regardless of their sexual orientation or the configuration of their families. This is a challenge that our folks need to meet.”

By Alex Mazariegos