In an unequivocal victory for same-sex marriage advocates, the court ruled in a split 5-4 decision to gut the major provision in the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
Justice Kennedy, who usually aligns with the conservative side of the bench, swung over to progressives, Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor. The ruling opinion held that DOMA violated the Equal Protection Clause in the Fifth Amendment. Furthermore, the regulation and definition of marriage has long been the prerogative of the states rather than the federal government. Finally, Kennedy argued “DOMA’s avowed purpose and practical effect are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages.”
In his dissenting opinion, Roberts argued DOMA’s motive was not necessarily sinister and that the federal government is authorized to regulate a certain amount of uniformity among U.S. marriages. For example, in the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional all anti-miscegenation laws or laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
In what is probably the strangest collaborating opinion in the past few years, progressive Justices Ginsburg, Kagan and Breyer joined conservative Justices Roberts and Scalia in overruling California’s Proposition 8 this morning. The California Supreme Court had ruled that same-sex marriage was legal under the state constitution. A ballot initiative known as Proposition 8 challenged this four-month stretch in which gay marriage was legal, arguing federal law trumped the state constitution and State Supreme Court. When the Court overruled Proposition 8 and the petitioners sued, the Justices once again, ruled in favor of the state.
The effects of both decisions will be far-reaching on all regulations involving marriage, running the gamut from immigration to social security, health care and military benefits. Once a declared opponent of gay marriage, President Barack Obama issued a statement from Air Force One en route to Africa claiming the decision as a victory for all Americans as well as same-sex couples.
What is largely at issue in both cases is a custody battle between state and federal government about the definition of marriage. This battle does not neatly fit along partisan lines. Many progressives and conservatives alike wish to see unilateral, federal definitions of marriage. They simply differ on whether that definition includes same-sex couples. Today, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the states. If same-sex marriage is to be achieved nationwide, it will have to be won on the local level before culminating in federal law, much like women’s suffrage. In other words, same-sex marriage advocates have won a major battle today, but the war continues.