The overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act on Wednesday meant several things for gays and lesbians across the U.S., though many say there is still work to be done on obtaining equal rights. In two separate rulings, the Supreme Court overturned a key part of the federal act and rejected the appeal of a California marriage ban. However, the bans on same-sex marriages in 35 other states remain intact.
The overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act on Wednesday meant several things for gays and lesbians across the U.S., though many say there is still work to be done on obtaining equal rights.
In two separate rulings, the Supreme Court overturned a key part of the federal act and rejected the appeal of a California marriage ban. However, the bans on same-sex marriages in 35 other states remain intact.
Here are five things to know about the rulings:
1. What the DOMA ruling means: The Defense of Marriage Act, commonly referred to as DOMA, defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the 1996 law that denies legally married same-sex couples the same federal benefits heterosexual spouses enjoy, such as tax, health and pension benefits. The case argued that DOMA violated equal protection guarantees in the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause. Due process refers to states respecting the legal rights of a person.
2. What the Proposition 8 ruling means: In another ruling Wednesday, the Supreme Court left a lower court ruling on Proposition 8 intact – finding that it had no authority to decide the merits of such a challenge based on its defenders being private citizens and not the state. While it’s been a complex case since 2004, essentially, the Supreme Court reverted to a trial court decision that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. The state’s voter-approved gay marriage ban was struck down, and same-sex couples will be permitted to marry soon in California.
3. How they voted: "Although Congress has great authority to design laws to fit its own conception of sound national policy, it cannot deny the liberty protected by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in the DOMA ruling. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan also voted to overturn the DOMA provision. The 5-4 ruling against the technical aspects of Proposition 8 was supported by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Breyer, Kagan and Ginsburg.
4. The limitations: The Supreme Court’s DOMA vote only applies to gay marriages that are legal. Thirteen states, along with Washington, D.C., have legalized gay marriage, while a handful of states only allow civil unions that afford just some rights to gay couples. However, both the Proposition 8 ruling and new access for gays to federal benefits if they marry may lead to more states eventually legalizing gay marriage.
5. What’s next: Full federal benefits to same-sex spouses in the 13 states (now including California) that have legalized gay marriage will take effect immediately. Federal benefits also will be available to the more than 18,000 same-sex couples married in 2008 before Proposition 8 was passed. A bill called the Respect for Marriage Act, which seeks to completely repeal DOMA, is making its way through Congress.
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