WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), 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 “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 at 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.”
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 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, now 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.