The Supreme Court ruled today that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. DOMA said that the federal government would only recognize marriages between one man and one woman. DOMA applied that definition of marriage to any federal law that took marriage into account, like tax law. DOMA was challenged by a lesbian couple, validly married under New York state law. When one member of the couple died, the other member couldn’t use the “surviving spouse” exemption to the federal estate tax, because DOMA prohibited the IRS from recognizing the couple’s New York marriage for tax purposes. The majority of the Supreme Court based their ruling on two key legal principles: (1) regulating marriage is a power that has always belonged to the individual states, and not to the federal government, and (2) when the federal government treats differently certain kinds of couples validly married by state law, it must have a very good reason for doing so. The Supreme Court said that there was no good reason for DOMA to impose special burdens on valid same-sex marriages, and that the primary factor motivating DOMA was moral disapproval and animosity. Therefore, the Supreme Court held DOMA unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court also ruled today that the supporters of Proposition 8 who originally defended it in court were not legally allowed to do so, effectively overturning Proposition 8. After Proposition 8 was adopted by California voters, a lawsuit was filed claiming it was unconstitutional. The California government refused to defend the law, so the supporters of Proposition 8 did so instead. However, because the Supreme Court ruled that the supporters of Proposition 8 weren’t legally allowed to defend the law, the practical effect was that the law’s challengers won by default.
In order to understand the ruling, one needs to understand a legal doctrine called “standing.” Standing is a right to sue that someone has when an unconstitutional law, or an act by a person, harms them in some real way. For example, if a driver hits a pedestrian, a third party can’t sue the driver because the third party wasn’t harmed. The right to sue belongs only to the pedestrian because the pedestrian was the only one injured. Generally, a citizen does not have standing to sue the government just because the government does something unconstitutional; the citizen must be able to demonstrate concrete, actual harm from the unconstitutional action. In this case, the Supreme Court held that the supporters of Proposition 8 weren’t personally harmed when the law was challenged. The Court recognized that the proponents of Proposition 8 invested large amounts of time and effort in passing the initiative. Nevertheless, once Proposition 8 was passed, it became a law just like any other law and the responsibility for defending it rested with either legislative or executive officials. Because the elected officials declined to defend the law, and the proponents of Proposition 8 couldn’t demonstrate any personal harm that would come to them if the law was overturned, they lacked standing to sue and the challengers won by default.
As expected, reactions are intensely varied on today’s Supreme Court Rulings.
Kris Perry, a plaintiff in the Proposition 8 case, said the Supreme Court’s ruling was a victory for children of same-gender couples, “No matter where you live, no matter who your parents are, no matter what kind of family you’re in, you are equal, you are as good as your friends’ parents and your friends.” http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2013/06/26/supreme-court/?hpt=hp_t1
The ACLU, while celebrating today’s decisions, focused on capitalizing on the momentum behind the gay marriage movement. The ACLU is already “hard at work on the next chapter of the work to bring the freedom to marry to the entire country.” http://www.aclu.org/blog/lgbt-rights/doma-unconstitutional-and-prop-8-goes-down-too
Spencer W. Clark, executive director of Mormons for Equality, found the decisions to be harmonious with his faith, “As Mormons for Equality, we are thrilled that the Supreme Court has agreed with us that all families deserve equal protection under the laws.” http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/56494696-78/utah-marriage-sex-court.html.csp
Google is also offering a unique commentary on today’s rulings. A Google search that includes the term “gay” causes a rainbow to appear around the search bar. http://www.google.com/
Even President Obama weighed in today’s gay marriage decisions, saying via Twitter that he is “proud” of the Proposition 8 plaintiffs and calling the DOMA ruling a “historic step forward.” https://twitter.com/BarackObama
On the other side of the ideological spectrum, today’s decision was extremely disappointing to many.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said that while today’s decisions were disappointing to his organization, he was confident that “time is not on the side of those seeking same-sex ‘marriage.’” He predicted, “As the American people are given time to experience the actual consequences of redefining marriage, the public debate and opposition to the redefinition of natural marriage will undoubtedly intensify.” http://www.frc.org/newsroom/supreme-courts-refusal-to-redefine-marriage-nationwide-allows-american-people-to-consider-consequences-of-redefinition
Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, called today a “sad day.” He further stated that Southern Baptists will adapt to the realities of the law and “continue to preach, declare, and live the truth that our God does not get involved in swing votes and cultural change when there is a biblical principle at stake.” http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/06/26/supreme-court-strikes-down-defense-marriage-act-provision/
Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, reacted by saying, “Our next line of defense is to vigorously protect our religious liberty.” http://www.wwntradio.com/news/news.php/displayType/article/13544/2013/06/supreme-court-hands-double-win-to-gay-marriage-backers
Justice Kennedy, disagreed with the majority opinion in the Proposition 8 case saying, “The essence of democracy is that the right to make law rests in the people and flows to the government, not the other way around. . . The Court today frustrates that choice.” http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12pdf/12-144_8ok0.pdf
Our law firm thanks Gregory Schulz and Micah McBride for preparing this content.