In the afterglow of the Supreme Court’s ruling validating federal benefits for married gay couples there’s a tinge of bittersweet irony. The justices’ other ruling overturning a voter-approved ban of gay marriage in California opens the way for gays to marry in the Golden State, but the narrow ruling left bans in Florida and other states in place.
So where does America stand on gay marriage?
Closer to the side that keeps government out of individual or religious decisions on sexual orientation and marriage — closer than at any time in U.S. history.
Last year’s presidential election showed a generational turn for gay marriage in the vast majority of younger voters’ support for the reelection of President Obama, who after years of hedging came out in support of gay marriage before the 2012 election. And public opinion polls since 2010 show a consistently growing majority of Americans believe gays should be able to legally marry.
Indeed, a majority of voters in four states gave the nod to gay marriage last year — an indication that there has been a groundswell change over the almost two decades since Congress approved the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.
This was the court’s first foray into the same-sex marriage issue, and its 5-4 ruling striking down DOMA surely is a victory for the civil rights of gay men and lesbians. Same-sex couples who are legally married — now it’s up to 13 states (including California) and the District of Columbia that allow such marriages — will no longer be second-class citizens. They will have all the rights to claim any federal benefits that heterosexual married couples now enjoy. This will mean Social Security, military and federal tax benefits. That’s as it should be.
Justice Anthony Kennedy held the key. A moderate appointed by Ronald Reagan, he joined the more liberal justices to defeat DOMA. The majority’s reasoning: “The principal purpose” of DOMA, “is to impose inequality.”
Yet the court’s ruling in the California case certainly leaves inequality in place in dozens of other states that have outlawed gay marriage either at the ballot box or by their state legislatures.
This patchwork will only complicate life for gays who want to marry in Florida but still can’t. The Obama administration promises to change federal rules to ensure federal benefits follow gay married couples who move, say, to Florida. Still, expect many more legal challenges seeking a clear victory for constitutional rights in all 50 states.
Neither ruling states specifically that there is a constitutional right to marry regardless of sexual orientation, leaving that up to the states — for now.
The ruling in the California case was decided 5-to-4 on technical grounds, but with a different set of justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. That case centered on Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that quashed a state law allowing gay marriage. The nation’s highest court simply sidestepped the merits of any constitutional right, deciding that those who were appealing state law had no legal standing. That, in effect, upheld a trial court’s ruling outlawing Proposition 8.
The Roberts court sidestepped clarifying the rights of the LGBT community nationwide. Eventually it will have to do so. Nevertheless, most Americans already know in their hearts what’s right: The government has no business interfering between two consenting adults who love one another and want to marry.