WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) – The Supreme Court has ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court voted 5-4 to strike down the act. The law prevents same-sex couples from getting federal benefits.
Justice Anthony Kennedy voted with the liberal justices to rule the law unconstitutional.
Kennedy wrote in the opinion: “What has been explained to this point should more than suffice to establish that the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage. This requires the Court to hold, as it now does, that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person.”
Kennedy continued: “Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways. DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.”
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.
In his dissent, Scalia says, “The Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better.”
Scalia added that the majority of the court made the dissenters look like “enemies of the human race.”
“It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race,” Scalia said.
Roberts wrote: “The majority sees a more sinister motive, pointing out that the Federal Government has generally (though not uniformly) deferred to state definitions of marriage in the past. That is true, of course, but none of those prior state-by-state variations had involved differences over something—as the majority puts it—’thought of by most people as essential to the very definition of [marriage] and to its role and function throughout the history of civilization.’”
President Barack Obama praised the court’s ruling on the federal marriage act, which he said “was 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 federal marriage law, known by its acronym DOMA, defines marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of deciding who can receive a range of federal benefits. Another provision not being challenged for the time being allows states to withhold recognition of same-sex marriages from other states.
DOMA easily passed Congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the year of his re-election.
Several federal district and appeals courts struck down the provision. In 2011, the Obama administration abandoned its defense of the law but continued to enforce it. House Republicans are now defending DOMA in the courts. President Barack Obama subsequently endorsed gay marriage in 2012.
CBS News reports that DOMA affects around 1,100 federal laws.
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.
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 Supreme Court also cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California by holding that defenders of California’s gay marriage ban did not have the right to appeal lower court rulings striking down the ban.
The court’s 5-4 vote Wednesday leaves in place the initial trial court declaration that the ban is unconstitutional. California officials probably will rely on that ruling to allow the resumption of same-sex unions in about a month’s time.
The high court itself said nothing about the validity of gay marriage bans in California and roughly three dozen other states.
The outcome was not along ideological lines.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and 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.
Four justices, Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor, said the court should have decided the constitutional question that was before it.
Supporters of same-sex marriage burst into cheers Wednesday at news of the Supreme Court’s decision invalidating part of a law denying gay marriage partners the same federal benefits heterosexual couples enjoy.
Sarah Prager, 26, cried when she heard the news standing outside the court. Prager married her wife in Massachusetts in 2011 and now lives in Maryland.
“I’m in shock. I didn’t expect DOMA to be struck down,” she said through tears and shaking. Prager was referring to the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, which was aimed at preserving the legal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
A large crowd had thronged to the high court’s plaza earlier to await not only the decision on DOMA, but also a ruling on whether a constitutional amendment in California prohibiting gay marriage could stand the test of challenge.
Most of the crowd that spilled across the sidewalk in front of the court were gay marriage supporters. One person held a rainbow flag and another wore a rainbow shawl, and a number of people carried signs with messages including “2 moms make a right” and “‘I Do’ Support Marriage Equality.” Others wore T-shirts including “Legalize gay” and “It’s time for marriage equality.” At several points the crowd began a call and response: “What do we want? Equality. When do we want it? Now.”
Larry Cirignano, 57, was in the minority with a sign supporting marriage only between a man and a woman. He said he drove four hours from Far Hills, N.J., because he believed all views should be represented. He said he hopes the court follows the lead of 38 states that have defined marriage as between one man and one woman
George Washington University student Philip Anderson, 20, came to the court with a closet door that towered above his head. He had painted it with a message opposing the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman and which the court is considering. His door read: “This used to oppress me. Repeal DOMA; Now. No more shut doors.”
Thirty-four-year-old Ian Holloway of Los Angeles got to the court around 7 a.m. to try to get a seat inside the courtroom. Holloway said he and his partner had planned to get married in March but when the justices decided to hear the case involving California’s ban on gay marriage they pushed back their date.
He said, “We have rings ready. We’re ready to go as soon as the decision comes down.” Holloway said he was optimistic the justices would strike down Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California.
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