Supreme Court Rules on Two Gay Marriage Cases
Proponents of gay marriage rights celebrated two major Supreme Court decisions announced on the final day of the court’s term. The court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and, by declining to decide a case on California’s Proposition 8, effectively permitted same-sex marriages in the state.
The rulings do not affect existing laws in many states banning same-sex marriage, and the court did not say whether a constitutional right to those unions exists. But the rulings are still a huge victory for gay rights advocates.
The Defense of Marriage Act prevented legally-married same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits. That part was struck down, which extends those benefits to couples in the 13 states (if California is counted) where same-sex marriages are recognized. The Obama administration may now broaden other benefits by executive action. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 decision.
“The principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage,” which constitutes “a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution,” Kennedy wrote. “By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
The case concerning Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage, was decided on a technicality. State officials had declined to appeal a trial court’s decision in favor of two same-sex couples, which negated the law. In another 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the proponents of Proposition 8 were not allowed to appeal the decision on behalf of the state, leaving the trial court ruling in place.
While it seems most commentators believe the Proposition 8 decision legalizes same-sex marriage in California, supporters of the law say it will remain in effect because the ruling only applies to the two couples who brought the case against the state. It remains to be seen exactly how this will be resolved. If California legalizes same-sex marriage, it will be the 13th state to do so, placing nearly 30 percent of the U.S. population in such states. Before 2012, when voters in four states legalized same-sex marriage, all such initiatives had failed, and all attempts to ban the unions at the ballot box had succeeded.
Florida voters approved an amendment to the state’s constitution to ban same-sex marriages in 2008 with 62% of the vote. However, a number of municipalities in Florida and other states have instituted domestic partnership registries. These registries grant participating unmarried same-sex and opposite-sex couples certain limited rights, including health care visitation and decision-making authority. The City of Tampa approved a domestic partnership registry recently, but Hillsborough County commissioners rejected a county-level proposal. Legislation to create a statewide domestic partnership registry was proposed in the 2013 legislative session, but did not receive consideration.
Unmarried couples of any orientation who wish to better understand their legal protections should speak with an attorney. Family law attorneys can help fill in the legal gaps that can be left when a couple is unmarried.