US high court decisions offer twin victories for same-sex marriage
June 26, 2013
In a pair of eagerly awaited rulings, the US Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and declined to hear an appeal in a case involving a voter initiative in California, handing two victories to supporters of same-sex unions.
In a hotly contested 5-4 decision in the case of United States v. Windsor, the Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), approved by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton, violated the constitution insofar as it denied federal benefits to same-sex couples legally married in their own states. The Court left standing a provision of DOMA that said no state is obligated to recognize same-sex marriages contracted in another state.
Writing for the majority in Windsor, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that the marriage laws are controlled by the states, and the federal government cannot deny benefits to people who are legally married under state law. “The federal statute is invalid,” he wrote, “for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”
In an angrily worded minority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said that the majority opinion suggested that anyone opposing same-sex marriage intends “to condemn, demean, or humiliate” others. “To hurl such accusations so casually demeans this institution,” he wrote.
Speaking for the US bishops’ conference, Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone—the president of the episcopal conference and chairman of the bishops’ committee on marriage, respectively—said that the court “got it wrong.” The decision in Windsor, they said, “has dealt a profound injustice to the American people by striking down in part the federal Defense of Marriage Act." The prelates encouraged Americans to “stand steadfastly together in promoting and defending the unique meaning of marriage: one man, one woman, for life."
In the day’s second major decision on same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a lower court’s decision overturning a California law that barred legal recognition of same-sex marriage in that state. The law, enacted by a voter referendum, had been overturned by a federal judge who claimed it had no rational basis. California’s governor and attorney general had declined to offer a defense of the law.
Writing for another 5-4 majority in the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry, Chief Justice John Roberts said that if California’s government officials would not defend the state law, the Supreme Court should not take the case. "We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to,” he wrote. Dissenting justices observed that the court’s refusal to take the case stripped the people of California of their effective right to enact a law over the opposition of political leaders.
- Supreme Court Bolsters Gay Marriage With Two Major Rulings (New York Times)
- Supreme Court strikes down key part of Defense of Marriage Act (Washington Post)
- U.S. bishops view Supreme Court's rulings as 'tragic day for marriage' (CNS)
- Supreme Court’s Mixed Decision on Marriage (Heritage Foundation)
- United States v. Windsor (text of Supreme Court decision)
- Hollingsworth et al. v. Perry et al. (text of Supreme Court decision)