26 Jun 2013

Huge victory for US gay rights after landmark court ruling

In two historic rulings, the US Supreme Court strikes down the law defining marriage as strictly between men and women and allows gay marriages in California to go ahead.

Gay rights flag outside supreme court (reuters)

Gay rights campaigners across the United States are celebrating today after the rulings.

The Supreme Court judges effectively struck down the anti-gay marriage Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) – thereby allowing federal benefits to legally married same sex couples. They also paved the way for legal gay marriages in California.

Both decisions had been eagerly awaited – months after the cases were argued out in court. Both decisions went through by a majority of 5-4.

In the DOMA case, the majority decision was written by justice Anthony Kennedy, supported by the four other liberal judges on the bench. He said the law, which had been signed by President Clinton in 1996, was invalid because it denied gay couples the dignity they were entitled to under the consittution.

Historic decision

“By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriage less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment”, he wrote. DOMA “violates basic due process and equal protection principles”.

In the other landmark case, the court has effectively allowed gay marriage to go ahead in California, by declining to rule on a case which sought to uphold a ban imposed across the state.

A lower court had overturned the ban, known as Proposition 8, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman and was passed in a state-wide referendum in 2008.

Although his was just a few months after gay marriages had been allowed, 18,000 couples had already got married. The lower court said it was unconsitutional to take away a right that had previously been granted.

You are just as good as everybody else, no matter who you love, no matter whom your parents love. Kris Perry, California case plaintiff

Today the Supreme Court declared that it lacked the jurisdiction to rule in the case, because of its “particular context”. The petitioners who tried to reinstate the ban, said the majority decision, did not have standing to appeal against the lower court’s decision.

Chief Justice John Roberts, explaining the ruling, said “We have no authority to decide this case on the merits”.

The gay rights organisation GLAAD described it as a “cornerstone for justice and equality”, while one of the plaintiffs involved in the California case, Kris Perry, declared it was a great day for American children and families.

“The importance of this case was to send a message to the children of this country that you are just as good as everybody else, no matter who you love, no matter whom your parents love”, she said.

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The lawyer who argued their case, David Boies, said marriage equality was now effectively the law of the land. Licences for gay couples to get legally wed in California are expected to be issued very soon.

The DOMA case was brought by 83 year old New Yorker Edith Windsor, whose wife died in 2009. She was obliged to pay more than $350,000 in estate tax, which she argued she would not have been liable for if she had been married to a man.

Today she said the ruling made her feel “joyous, just joyous!”, and called it the “beginning of the end of stigma, lying about who we are.”

Marriage equality

But although the ruling will give all couples who are legally married the same rights to federal benefits, it does not mean that states where same-sex marriage is illegal must now overturn their own laws.

And, say legal experts, there may need to be more rulings to clarify the position on other areas like tax law and social security. Critics have vowed to campaign for a ban. Former Republican congresswoman Michelle Bachmann said marriage was created by God.

“No man, not even a Supreme Court, can undo what a holy God has instituted”, she said. “What the Court has done will undermine the best interest of children and the best interest of the United States.”

But US public opinion is now firmly behind gay marriage: the law has merely caught up. A series of polls show that some 60% of Americans believe the federal authorities should treat all legal marriages equally.

President Obama spoke to the plaintiffs from Air Force one to congratulate them on their win: declaring “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.”

And for now, celebrations are set to go on long into the night, by all those who have fought so long, for equal protection under the law.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News