Court Gives Nods to Gay Marriage; Justices Are Divided over California, Federal Cases

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Byline: Cheryl Wetzstein, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In a banner day for supporters of gay marriage, a closely divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal provision that denied benefits to legally married same-sex couples and, in a separate case, cleared the way for California to resume offering marriage licenses to gay couples.

Gay-rights groups cheered the two 5-4 rulings issued on the final day of the court's term, but lamented that the high court stopped short of invalidating laws and constitutional bans in the dozens of states where gay marriage remains illegal. President Obama also quickly hailed the court's actions for striking down what he called discrimination enshrined in law.

Traditional-marriage groups condemned the rulings and vowed to keep up the fight against gay marriage at the state level. California officials said the state could resume sanctioning gay unions within the month after the ruling.

The 5-4 ruling on the federal case, written by the court's longtime swing vote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, overturned part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and was by far the more far-reaching legal decision. The court's four more liberal justices joined Justice Kennedy in the majority in the case, the U.S. v. Windsor.

The ruling struck down a central provision of DOMA and ensures that legally married gay couples will be treated the same as opposite-sex married couples in federal programs, including Social Security survivor benefits, military and health payments, and filing status in federal income taxes.

It also means Edith Windsor, the New York lesbian widow who was required to pay $363,000 in estate taxes because the government did not recognize her as the surviving spouse, will get her refund.

Shortly after Wednesday's ruling was announced, the 83-year-old plaintiff received a congratulatory call from Mr. Obama. She thanked the president for coming out for us, said a New Yorker reporter who was with her.

In the second opinion, which essentially struck down California's 2008 voter initiative banning gay marriage known as Proposition 8, gay-rights supporters hailed the ruling, but both sides noted that the decision authored by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was far more limited, focusing on the lack of legal standing for those arguing to preserve the voter initiative.

While we celebrate the victory for Californians today, tomorrow we turn our attention to the millions of gay, bisexual and transgender people who don't feel the reach of these decisions, said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which helped bring together the legal team that won in the Proposition 8 case.

This is a great day for America, said David Boies, a lead attorney for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which represented the two same-sex couples who sued to overturn Prop 8. The high court didn't get to address the merits of their case, said Mr. Boies, but someday, when the case is back before the U.S. Supreme Court, marriage equality will be the law throughout this land.

Outside the Supreme Court, thousands of gay-marriage advocates joyfully responded as the news leaked out on a steamy Wednesday morning.

It's amazing. Because now in 10 or 20 years, whenever I want to get married, hopefully the laws will stand by then [and] I can have full and equal rights, just like the Constitution says, said Casey Syron, a college student who is also a gay Republican.

To the relief of traditional-marriage advocates, neither Supreme Court ruling asserted a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, nor did they add sexual orientation to the types of cases that must be given so-called heightened scrutiny by courts.

The court didn't redefine marriage for the nation. We will work to restore clear marriage policy at the national level and get our laws defended at every level. But in the meantime, today's decision from the court means that our national debate about marriage will continue, said Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation. …