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September 2, 2014

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Supreme Court strikes down Defense of Marriage Act

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Charles Dharapak / AP

Michael Knaapen, left, and his husband, John Becker, right, embrace outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, June 26, 2013 after the court struck down a federal provision denying benefits to legally married gay couples.

Updated Wednesday, June 26, 2013 | 10:41 a.m.

Supreme Court DOMA

John Lewis, left, and Stuart Gaffney embrace outside San Francisco's City Hall shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California on Wednesday, June 26, 2013.  Launch slideshow »

WASHINGTON — In a major victory for gay rights, the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a provision of a federal law denying federal benefits to married gay couples and cleared the way for the resumption of same-sex marriage in California.

The justices issued two 5-4 rulings in their final session of the term. One decision wiped away part of a federal anti-gay marriage law that has kept legally married same-sex couples from receiving tax, health and pension benefits.

The other was a technical ruling that said nothing at all about same-sex marriage, but left in place a trial court's declaration that California's Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. That outcome probably will allow state officials to order the resumption of same-sex weddings in the nation's most populous state in about a month.

In neither case did the court make a sweeping statement, either in favor of or against same-sex marriage. And in a sign that neither victory was complete for gay rights, the high court said nothing about the validity of gay marriage bans in California and roughly three dozen other states. A separate provision of the federal marriage law that allows a state to not recognize a same-sex union from elsewhere remains in place.

President Barack Obama praised the court's ruling on the federal marriage act, which he labeled "discrimination enshrined in law."

"It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people," Obama said in a statement. "The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he was disappointed in the outcome of the federal marriage case and hoped states continue to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

The ruling in the California case was not along ideological lines. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Antonin Scalia.

"We have no authority to decide this case on the merits, and neither did the 9th Circuit," Roberts said, referring to the federal appeals court that also struck down Proposition 8.

In the case involving the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, joined by the court's liberal justices.

"Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways," Kennedy said.

"DOMA's principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal," he said.

Some in the crowd outside the court hugged and others jumped up and down just after 10 a.m. EDT Wednesday when the DOMA decision was announced. Many people were on their cell phones monitoring Twitter, news sites and blogs for word of the decision. And there were cheers as runners came down the steps with the decision in hand and turned them over to reporters who quickly flipped through the decisions.

Chants of "Thank you" and "USA" came from the crowd as plaintiffs in the cases descended the court's marbled steps. Most of those in the crowd appeared to support gay marriage, although there was at least one man who held a sign promoting marriage as between a man and a woman.

Kennedy was joined in the DOMA decision by the court's four liberal justices.

Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, and Scalia dissented.

Same-sex marriage has been adopted by 12 states and the District of Columbia. Another 18,000 couples were married in California during a brief period when same-sex unions were legal there.

The outcome is clear for people who were married and live in states that allow same-sex marriage. They now are eligible for federal benefits.

The picture is more complicated for same-sex couples who traveled to another state to get married, or who have moved from a gay marriage state since being wed.

Their eligibility depends on the benefits they are seeking. For instance, immigration law focuses on where people were married, not where they live. But eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits basically depends on where a couple is living when a spouse dies.

The rulings came 10 years to the day after the court's Lawrence v. Texas decision that struck down state bans on gay sex. In his dissent at the time, Scalia predicted the ruling would lead to same-sex marriage.

Massachusetts was the first state to allow gay couples to marry, in 2004. When same-sex unions resume in California, there will be 13 states representing 30 percent of the U.S. population where gay marriage is legal.

The other 11 are Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Outside the court, gay marriage proponents celebrated both wins.

May the marriages begin," said the Human Rights Campaign's Chad Griffin, who helped spearhead the lawsuit challenging Proposition 8. The two same-sex couples who sued for the right to marry also were at the court Wednesday.

In New York City's Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn, where a riot in 1969 sparked the gay rights movement, erupted in cheers and whooping.

Mary Jo Kennedy, 58 was there with her wife Jo-Ann Shain, 60, and their daughter Aliya Shain, 25.

She came with a sign that could be flipped either way and was holding up the side that says "SCOTUS made our family legal".

They have been together 31 years and got married day it became legal in New York.

The broadest possible ruling would have given gay Americans the same constitutional right to marry as heterosexuals. The justices said nothing on that topic in either case.

The decisions Wednesday have no effect on the roughly three dozen states that do not allow same-sex marriage, including 29 that have enshrined the bans in their constitutions.

The federal marriage law, known by its acronym DOMA, had been struck down by several federal courts.

The justices chose for their review the case of 83-year-old Edith Windsor of New York, who sued to challenge a $363,000 federal estate tax bill after her partner of 44 years died in 2009.

Windsor, who goes by Edie, married Thea Spyer in 2007 after doctors told them Spyer would not live much longer. She suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years. Spyer left everything she had to Windsor.

Windsor would have paid nothing in inheritance taxes if she had been married to a man. And now she is eligible for a refund.

Associated Press writers Connie Cass, Jessica Gresko and Bethan McKernan contributed to this report. McKernan reported from New York.

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  1. Good for them!

    Finally the right decisions have been made according to law rather than emotions.

  2. Two more steps in the march toward equality.

  3. Yes!!

    vegaslee, ksand99 -- what you said!

    "Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual." -- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Isaac H Tiffany (1819)

  4. FYI -- decisions are online @ http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12p... and http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12p...

    "[Our] principles [are] founded on the immovable basis of equal right and reason." -- Thomas Jefferson, to James Sullivan, 1797

  5. The Court didn't strike down DOMA - it merely concluded that the parties who defended the law had no standing - therefore the lower court was upheld - and the lower court is the one that struck down DOMA - but limited only to CA.

    The merits of equal protection were not decided today - hence the odd 5-4 decision. Bigoted laws in other states remain intact.

    "Right decision made according to law rather than emotions"? The court simply concluded there was no standing - the merits of equal protection were not addressed.

    Why is Jefferson being quoted to claim Vegaslee is right? Jefferson's quote is a caveat to individuals that at times rigid application of the law is often but the tyrant's will.

    That is more of a Scalia's approach - a strict constructionist - and I'm pretty sure you know Scalia is not the biggest supporter of Equal Rights. See the gutting of VRA.

  6. To clarify - my comment was in referenced to http://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/su...

    Two decisions - so it looks like DOMA was struck down! Move along move along! Nothing to read here!

  7. "The Court didn't strike down DOMA - it merely concluded that the parties who defended the law had no standing..."

    unlv702 -- you're wrong. It's right there in the syllabus: "2. DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 13--26."

    "[Our] principles [are] founded on the immovable basis of equal right and reason." -- Thomas Jefferson, to James Sullivan, 1797

  8. This shouldn't have been 5-4; crap like DOMA was precisely the sort of bigotry the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to stamp out.

  9. "...crap like DOMA was precisely the sort of bigotry the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to stamp out."

    zerstuckelung -- how true. But look at the Fourteenth Amendment's history -- it was passed and ratified in the 1860s, yet it wasn't until the 1960s, a full century later, that government actually began enforcing it. And that was largely because of a massive civil rights movement and a new president (Kennedy). To me this proves government itself, Constituted to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity," is the main opponent to We the People being free.

    "I have been made to believe in this democracy thing, and I am all for tasting this democracy out. The flavor must be good. If the Occident is so intent in keeping the taste out of darker mouths that it spends all those billions and expends all those billions and expends all those millions of lives, colored ones too, to keep it among themselves, then it must be something good. I crave to sample this gorgeous thing. So I cannot say anything different from repeal of all Jim Crow laws! Not in some future generation, but repeal now and forever!!" - Zora Neale Hurston

  10. You are right LastThroes - that is why we must ensure that people mobilize and Register to Vote and get out to the Polls!

    Every vote counts! Register friends/colleagues/family - and get them to the polls!

    You must never rely on the goodwill of others - or you will place your life in the hands of people like Scalia and the like. Vile humans!

  11. Marriage is a Religious ceremony commitment from A man to A Women according to the Bible and is called Holy Matrimony. So why is our Government telling us who can marry and who cannot, These Marriages are Religious Ceremony and should have never been considered for anything had the practice of separation of church and State been the Norm. But the State could not resist the opportunity to tax something so here we are at this junction today. I personally don't care if same sex partners marry, I say this as a Christian my only request would be that the marriage between these same sex persons respect the Religious term HOLY MATRIMONY and not refer to theirs as such.
    As for their rights and benefits. They should have them.

  12. casinokid says "Marriage is a Religious ceremony commitment from A man to A Women according to the Bible and is called Holy Matrimony."

    Interesting. I've checked numerous version of the Bible and none contain the phrase "Holy Matrimony".

    So in addition to Victor's question of whether your religion is the only religion....and the obvious point that marriage predates both your Bible and your church....I'd like to point out that you basis for claiming exclusive right to the term "Holy Matrimony" is also flawed.

    But hey, let's compromise. They won't co-opt your term "Holy Matrimony" on the grounds that your group was using it first and you want to preserve the meaning....if your group will give up the use of a word you co-opted that had specific meaning to the groups that were using it before yours...."God".