Marriage equality reaches the Supreme Court

NARAL Pro-Choice America and NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota are proud to have an official position in support of marriage equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard almost two hours worth of oral arguments regarding the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law that denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. DOMA affects more than 1,000 federal laws and programs with rules whose application depends in part on a person’s marital status. DOMA defines marriage, under federal law, as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” The question is whether the law violates constitutional law via federalism or equal protection.

This week the Supreme Court also heard arguments on Tuesday regarding a challenge to California’s Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage in the state.

Currently, same-sex marriage is legal only in nine states: Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Hew Hampshire, New York, Washington and Vermont (plus Washington D.C.). New Mexico and Rhode Island legally recognize out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples. Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Rhode Island allow civil union, while California, Oregon, Nevada and Wisconsin offer domestic partnerships.

The bad news is that marriage equality activists are unlikely to get the sweeping victory that they might have hoped for. The Supreme Court appears reluctant to declare a broad ruling that same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry in the United States. In short, the court is moving forward cautiously rather than boldly supporting gay rights.

Considered a crucial swing vote on the issue, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy voiced concerns that DOMA is a violation of equal protection rights, and it also undermines states’ rights and federalism. This case ruling will ultimately determine if the federal government has the authority to regulate marriage.

Two of the justifications Congress cited for passing DOMA in 1996 include defending traditional notions of both morality and marriage. The Obama Administration has urged the court to find these two justifications unconstitutional.

If the court strikes down DOMA, then the federal government will have to recognize same-sex marriages in states where they are legal, but the states will still have the freedom to decide separately whether or not to allow gay marriage.

Rulings on both DOMA and Proposition 8 are expected by the end of June.