In what marriage-equality proponents are heralding as two moves in the right direction, the United States Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits and, by not deciding a Proposition 8 case from California, essentially allowed same-sex marriages in this state.
Although the Supreme Court’s rulings have no bearing on the existing laws that prohibit same-sex marriage throughout the country, and the Court didn’t declare a constitutional right to that type of union, their decisions Wednesday effectively raise the number of states that permit same-sex marriage to 13.
In the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry, concerning Prop 8– the California ban on same-sex marriage– a majority of the justices deemed that they could not properly decide it, since state officials had not appealed a trial court’s decision against them and since Prop 8 proponents did not have the constitutional standing to appeal the decision on behalf of the state. The Supreme Court’s move to not decide the case leaves in place a trial-court victory for two same-sex couples who had pursued matrimony.
The Court’s other decision overturns the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a U.S. law that had garnered bipartisan support and was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. DOMA had allowed states to deny the recognition of same-sex marriages performed under the laws of other states. In a 5-4 decision, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing the majority opinion, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a portion of the Act– Section 3– is unconstitutional in its restriction of federal marriage benefits.
“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Kennedy wrote. “By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
Long Beach Vice Mayor Robert Garcia, who, when elected in 2009 became the first openly gay person of color ever elected to the Long Beach City Council, called Wednesday “a great day” for the country and the state. “Citizens across California will now have the ability to marry the person they love and be recognized by the federal government,” he said. “Long Beach has always been a welcoming place for everyone, and I look forward to welcoming same-sex couples at City Hall as they choose to marry their partners. Equality and fairness have won the day.”
Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster also issued a statement Wednesday that celebrated the high court’s decisions. “Today is a monumental day that will change, for the better, the lives of friends and families throughout our great state and makes our nation stronger,” he said.
Signal Hill Councilmember Larry Forester, like Garcia, is an openly gay elected city official. “I could not be more proud of all who have fought for today’s rulings,” he said Wednesday morning in response to an email from the Signal Tribune. “The Court got [that] we are all equal under the law and protected by the Constitution.”
Because the Supreme Court did not decide on Hollingsworth v. Perry, both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage found reason to celebrate. Andy Pugno, who is general counsel for ProtectMarriage.com, the official proponent of Prop 8, released a statement Wednesday morning that seemed to praise the Court’s ruling, which found that the group does not have the authority to defend the proposition.
“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ misguided decision that sought to invalidate Proposition 8,” Pugno said. “For the more than seven million Californians who have seen their vote stripped away from them, little by little, over the course of five years, that decision is gratifying. While it is unfortunate that the Court’s ruling does not directly resolve questions about the scope of the trial court’s order against Prop 8, we will continue to defend Prop 8 and seek its enforcement until such time as there is a binding statewide order that renders Prop 8 unenforceable.”
California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry means that every county in the state of California must now recognize the right of same-sex couples to legally marry, and she asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to lift its stay and allow same-sex marriages to take place.
“The Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Hollingsworth v. Perry means that same-sex couples have the fundamental right to be legally married in all of California’s 58 counties,” she said. “The Court agreed with our argument that opponents of same-sex marriage lacked the legal standing required to bring the issue to the court. Same-sex marriages can legally resume in California as soon as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals lifts its stay on the district court ruling. I ask that the Ninth Circuit lift this stay immediately, because gay and lesbian couples in California have waited long enough for their full civil rights.”
Ron Sylvester, president and chairman of the LGBTQ Center of Long Beach, released a statement Wednesday that echoed the historical significance that Harris attributed to the rulings. “Today’s Supreme Court ruling restores marriage equality in California,” he said. “Now same-sex couples can legally marry in 13 states and Washington, DC, and more than 93 million Americans– nearly a third of the country– live in a jurisdiction with the freedom to marry. In addition, by striking down DOMA, the Supreme Court affirms that all loving and committed couples who marry deserve equal legal respect and treatment.”
Sylvester also said that the decisions add momentum to the work to win marriage equality in other states.
Long Beach Councilmember Patrick O’Donnell, who represents the city’s 4th District, also issued a statement on June 26, which he described as a monumental day for California and the country. “There was no rational moral or legal basis to reject same-sex marriage, and to deny this right is to deny the principles of our Constitution,” he said. “The Supreme Court has affirmed the fight our LGBTQ community has fought for years. Today we celebrate marriage equality.”
It was a bittersweet week for supporters of minorities’ rights. The Supreme Court’s actions on same-sex marriage came on the heels of their June 25 ruling which held that Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 are unconstitutional.
The VRA was enacted to address entrenched racial discrimination in voting, according to the Supreme Court’s syllabus for the case. However, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court ruled that the Act’s pre-existing coverage formula in Section 4(b) and the preclearance requirements of section 5 are unconstitutional within the context of modern-day elections and that they can no longer be used as bases for subjecting jurisdictions to federal oversight.
Congressmember Alan Lowenthal, whose 47th District is centered in Long Beach, released a statement Tuesday morning saying that he agrees with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who said in her dissent that the Voting Rights Act is one of the most consequential, efficacious, and amply justified exercises of federal legislative power in the nation’s history.
“Today’s decision by the court majority eviscerates the VRA and opens the door for voter discrimination and suppression on an unprecedented level,” Lowenthal said. “This is a sizable step backwards in our collective national journey toward social justice and civil rights. Congress must move quickly in a decisive bipartisan way to update the VRA and continue vital protections for minority voters.”
Congressmember Maxine Waters, who represents California’s 43rd District, said in a statement Tuesday that she was “deeply troubled” by the decision regarding VRA. “In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court struck Section 4, a provision which outlines the formula federal officials have used to determine which states must clear new voting laws with the Department of Justice,” she said. “This decision ignores the persistence of discrimination in voting and weakens a vital tool that has protected the right to vote for all Americans for nearly 50 years.”
Jerome Horton, chairman of the Board of Equalization, also released a statement, in which he said he was “outraged by the failure of the highest court in the land to protect the rights of every American to vote without the challenges caused by inconsistency which opens the door to discrimination and suppression of a basic American right.” Horton said that removing federal approval of any state to make changes in election laws affecting African-Americans and minorities is anathema to the very essences of the VRA.
“Freedom does not become obsolete, nor does any part of a law that guarantees justice,” he said. “I join President Obama in fighting to restore this 48-year-old protection. We must not betray the memory of Dr. [Martin Luther] King and the valiant struggle of the modern civil-rights movement.”