Wednesday’s two Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage don’t represent a complete victory for gay rights advocates. Nonetheless, they are significant landmarks in the march toward granting gay couples the same fundamental marital rights as heterosexual couples.
Those hoping for a full endorsement of gay marriage by the court may focus on what justices failed to do. But those seeking an expansion of marriage rights – vs. a step backward – can rejoice in what the justices did.
The 5-4 ruling that struck down the so-called federal Defense of Marriage Act was especially stirring. In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Mr. Kennedy went beyond attacking DOMA based on states’ rights, expanding the ruling to assert the right of gay married couples to equal protection under the Fifth Amendment.
“DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others,” Kennedy wrote. “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”
The ruling explicitly says that DOMA’s purpose was to insure that same-sex marriages “will be treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law.” And that, the majority said, is unconstitutional.
This ruling not only entitles legally married same-sex couples to whatever federal benefits to which they might be eligible. Its emphasis on equal protection also presents a path for legalization of same-sex marriage in other states.
In a second ruling, the court ducked a direct decision on California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman. Instead, the court ruled on technical grounds, saying the plaintiffs did not have legitimate standing to bring the case before the court. That left in place a lower court ruling that had nullified Proposition 8.
But the practical result was another victory for same-sex unions, clearing the way for gay marriage in California, which would make it the 13th state, along with the District of Columbia, to legalize gay marriage. The addition of state as populous as California to that list also would mean that nearly a third of all Americans live in states where same-sex marriage is legal.
We join those who rejoice in this progress toward marriage equality for gay couples. But the journey will not be complete until those rights are recognized in all states, including South Carolina.
Nonetheless, Wednesday’s Supreme Court decisions are further evidence that society is changing, often in dramatic ways, regarding this issue. What seemed impossible a decade ago now seems virtually inevitable.
But the battle is far from over. There will be a backlash to the court’s ruling, and opponents of same-sex marriage will continue the fight to keep it illegal in states that don’t sanction it.
But Wednesday’s decisions reinforce the message not only to gay couples but also to their friends and families – particularly their children – that their marriages are as legitimate and worthy as those of heterosexual couples.
These rulings will stand as major victories for equality in America.