Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Same-Gender Marriage

Two separate opinions open door for California couples to marry and all legal same-gender marriages to be recognized by the federal government.

By Chris Hoenig


Photo by Shutterstock

The Supreme Court has overturned the federal government's ban on the recognition of same-gender marriage written into the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and issued a ruling that allows same-gender marriages to resume in California.

The 5-to-4 ruling on DOMA, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, found that the law "singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty." It also adds that "DOMA's unusual deviation from the usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage here operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with the federal recognition of their marriages.

"There is strong evidence of a law having the purpose and effect of disapproval of that class. The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States."

Kennedy was joined by the court's more liberal justices–Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan–in the majority.

The ruling on California's Proposition 8 ban on same-gender marriage is a far more complex decision, but the final result is clear: LGBT couples can once again get married in the Golden State. Prop 8 was overturned in a lawsuit decided in 2010 by U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker. That decision was appealed by a group of private citizens to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and, ultimately, the Supreme Court.

The high court ruled, however, that the private citizens did not have the right to appeal when state officials had decided not to. This 5-to-4 decision vacates the Ninth Circuit's ruling (which upheld the district court's overturning of Prop 8) and orders the Ninth Circuit to rule that it does not have jurisdiction to hear the appeal, leaving the district court ruling in place.

In the opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts writes: "We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to. We decline to do so for the first time here."

Chief Justice Roberts was joined by justices Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan to form a rare 5-4 majority that does not fall along ideological lines.

What Was Argued

The two cases before the court challenged different aspects of same-gender marriage: the actual ability to marry and the recognition of the legal benefits of marriage.

President Obama announced in 2011 that he would no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA, which banned recognition of and federal benefits for same-gender married couples. The case before the court, Windsor v. United States, involved Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, who were legally married in Canada in 2007.  Following Spyer's death in 2009, Windsor was forced to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes on her inheritance, taxes that she would not have to pay as Spyer's spouse if their marriage was recognized by the U.S. government.

DOMA also prevented married same-gender couples from being able to file joint federal tax returns and prohibits spousal insurance (for federal employees) or Social Security survivors' benefits. Those provisions are overturned by this decision.

In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Supreme Court heard arguments appealing a 2012 decision by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that found California's Proposition 8 ban on same-gender marriage unconstitutional—in the state of California only. The narrow ruling by the appeals court opened the door for the Supreme Court to allow individual states to make their own laws on same-gender marriage.

Public Opinion Changing

Last year, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to come out in support of gay marriage. The announcement marked a change of heart for the President, who had failed to advocate for gay rights and had actually defended DOMA in the past.

And the President is not alone, as a number of polls show a changing attitude toward the LGBT community and same-gender marriage. A Pew Research Center poll released in early June found that a majority of Americans—51 percent—support gay marriage, the first time that Pew results crossed the 50 percent threshold. Nearly three-quarters of Americans polled believe same-gender marriage is "inevitable," including 59 percent of those who oppose it. When broken down by factors including gender, ethnicity, age, education, religion and political affiliation, no less than 60 percent of any "group" said they believe it will happen.

Outside the U.S., polls show similar countries also are also for gay marriage. In May, France became the most populous country to legalize same-gender marriage nationwide. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released this month found 52 percent of people in 16 developed nations support full marriage equality for the LGBT community, including a 50 percent-plus majority in nine of the 16 countries.

Same-gender marriage and its benefits are not just a legal or governmental issue. For many couples, insurance and retirement plans are acquired through employers. Corporations in the 2013 DiversityInc Top 50 are leaders in both advocating same-gender marriage and establishing benefits for couples.

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