Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a landmark victory for gay rights on Wednesday by forcing the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage in states where it is legal and paving the way for it in California, the most populous state.
As expected, however, the court fell short of a broader ruling endorsing a fundamental right for gay people to marry, meaning that there will be no impact in the more than 30 states that do not recognize gay marriage.
The two cases, both decided on 5-4 votes, concerned the constitutionality of a key part of a federal law, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), that denied benefits to same-sex married couples, and a voter-approved California state law enacted in 2008, called Proposition 8, that banned gay marriage.
The court struck down Section 3 of DOMA, which limited the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal benefits, as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, 76, appointed to the court by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1988, was the key vote and wrote the DOMA opinion, the third major gay rights ruling he has authored since 1996.
In a separate opinion, the court ducked a decision on Proposition 8 by finding that supporters of the California law did not have standing to appeal a federal district court ruling that struck it down. By doing so, the justices let stand the lower-court ruling that had found the ban unconstitutional.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the Proposition 8 opinion, ruling along procedural lines in a way that said nothing about how the court would rule on the merits. The court was split upon unusual lines, with liberals and conservatives in the majority and the dissent.
By ruling this way on Proposition 8, the court effectively let states set their own policy on gay marriage, and as a result ballot initiative battles are certain to break out across the country. Further battles are likely also in courts and legislatures, state by state.
President Barack Obama applauded the court’s DOMA decision and directed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to review all relevant federal laws to ensure the ruling is implemented.
Gay marriage stirs cultural, religious and political passions in the United States as elsewhere.