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The DOMA decision ripple effect

Though Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling doesn't require states to allow same-sex marriages, it could increase the pressure on them to do so.

June 27, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • Brandon Brown, 28, left, gets a piece of cake from Colby Melvin, 25, at The Abby Food and Bar in West Hollywood as they celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down key parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Brandon Brown, 28, left, gets a piece of cake from Colby Melvin, 25, at The… (Los Angeles Times )

Supporters of equality for gays and lesbians are exulting in Wednesday's rulings by the Supreme Court, and we share in their celebration. Although the court did not rule, as we had hoped, that all prohibitions on same-sex marriage violate the Constitution, its invalidation of part of the Defense of Marriage Act dramatically advances the cause of marriage equality. So does its ruling that proponents of California's Proposition 8 lacked legal standing to challenge a federal judge's holding that the initiative was unconstitutional. As a practical matter, that decision legalizes same-sex marriage in this state.

Not long ago, full legal recognition of same-sex couples seemed an exotic and unattainable goal. Even after these decisions, most states don't permit same-sex marriage. But the trend is unmistakable. As President Obama eloquently put it: "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."

The Defense of Marriage Act was enacted by Congress in a panic in 1996 and signed by President Clinton, who since has repented of his action. One provision, which was not an issue in Wednesday's decision, allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. The other defines marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman, denying legally married same-sex couples a wealth of benefits and protections.

DECISION: U.S. Supreme Court overturns DOMA

That section was challenged by Edith Windsor, an 84-year-old widow who had to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes after the death of her spouse because she was ineligible for a spousal deduction. The two women were married in Canada and lived in New York, where same-sex marriage is legal. In ruling for Windsor, the Supreme Court cited both the traditional right of states to define marriage and the fact that, by withholding recognition of same-sex marriages, Congress had imposed a stigma on same-sex couples.

In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that DOMA "places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage. The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects." Kennedy said that DOMA's derogation of same-sex married couples raised "a most serious question" under the 5th Amendment, which requires the "equal liberty of persons."

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, accusing Kennedy of laying the groundwork for a ruling invalidating state laws against same-sex marriage. (He wrote that "it is just a matter of listening and waiting for the other shoe.") As much as we would approve of such a decision, Wednesday's ruling doesn't require states to allow same-sex marriages. But it could increase the pressure on states to do so, not just because of its symbolic weight but because states that legalize same-sex marriage in the future will be making it possible for their citizens to receive material benefits from the federal government. Important as it is in its own terms, the DOMA decision could — and we hope will — have a dramatic ripple effect.

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