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. It will take about a month before same-sex marriages could begin in California, according to San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office.
The decisions in the two cases 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 trial judge’s order allowing at least some gay marriages there. And by invalidating 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.
“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.
Joining Kennedy in the majority on the Defense of Marriage Act ruling were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Dissenting were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
“We have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation,” Scalia wrote in dissent.
In the California case, the court said the sponsors of Proposition 8 lacked power to appeal the trial judge’s order. California officials had refused to defend the measure. The justices split along unusual lines, with Roberts, Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan in the majority.
Kennedy, Thomas, Alito and 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.
Companies including Apple Inc. and Morgan Stanley urged the Supreme Court to back gay-marriage rights as did the Obama administration.
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.
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.