Supreme Court rules for gay marriage in two cases, ends term

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Sharon Solomon, 60, of Los Angeles, cheers outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday as word traveled of the justice's ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. "I'm jubilant," she said. "This is the beginning of the next step of a continuing journey." (Deanna Del Ciello/SHFWire)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court handed supporters of gay marriage a pair of victories Wednesday on the final day of its term.

The Supreme Court ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and determined that it could not rule on California’s Proposition 8. Both decisions were 5-4.

In United States v. Windsor, the DOMA case, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the act violated the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment.

DOMA, enacted in 1996, defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The act affected about 1,000 federal benefits.

In 2007, Edith Windsor married Thea Spyer in Ontario, Canada. After paying estate taxes after Spyer died, Windsor sued to obtain a refund. Married couples are generally exempt from estate taxes.

In February 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that President Barack Obama found Section 3 of the act unconstitutional.

In the opinion, Kennedy wrote that the federal government hurt a group of people that the states were trying to protect.

“What the state of New York treats as alike the federal deems unlike by a law designed to injure the same class the state seeks to protect,” Kennedy wrote.

By doing this the government violates basic due process and equal protection principles, Kennedy wrote.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. dissented.

When he read his dissent, Scalia said it was difficult to pin down majority’s basis for unconstitutionality.

In his opinion, he wrote that the majority of the court said supporters of DOMA acted with malice – to injure same sex couples.

“It is hard to admit that one’s political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today’s court can handle,” Scalia wrote. “Too bad.”

In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the California case, Roberts read the court’s opinion, which said the Supreme Court did not have the authority to decide the case.

In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman. The state declined to defend the proposition in court, so proponents of the proposition took the state’s place.

For the court to hear the case, the party involved must have standing, which requires that it must show it suffered an injury, Robert’s opinion said.

“For a federal court to have authority under the Constitution to settle a dispute, the party before it must seek a remedy for personal and tangible harm,” Roberts wrote.

As a result, the Supreme Court could not determine the main question of the case: whether the 14th Amendment, through its Equal Protection Clause, prohibits California from defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

“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,” Roberts wrote. “We decline to do so for the first time here.”

Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Alito and Sonia Sotomayor dissented in the Hollingsworth v. Perry case.

In a statement, President Barack Obama applauded the Supreme Court’s decision.

“The laws of our land are catching up to the fundamental truth that millions of Americans hold in our hearts: when all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free,” he said.

On the steps of the Supreme Court, the Rev. Rob Schenck, chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance, gave a brief speech and led a prayer after the decisions were announced.

“One thing certain about today’s Supreme Court opinions is that they do not change the biblical definition of marriage as between male and female,” he said.

During a press conference, also on the court steps, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, set a new goal for supporters of same sex marriage: marriage equality for all 50 states in five years, the same amount of time it took to address Proposition 8.

“Tomorrow is certainly a new day, but the sun will still rise on an unequal country,” he said.

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Editor’s note: this article was previously published by Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.

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