A clear shift in society’s attitude toward gay marriage over the last decade has resulted in 13 states — including Washington — legalizing same-sex unions.
So when the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday issued two rulings striking down challenges to same-sex marriage, some hailed the decisions as earth-shaking triumphs that could end the gay-marriage debate.
The rulings are far from debate-ending. They are likely only the first of decisions coming from court battles as the various states approve same-sex marriage laws. The long journey to establishing a national standard is fully under way.
In one of the two decisions, the divided court undercut California’s Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage. But the court’s 5-4 ruling did not even consider the constitutionality of the law. The ruling was made on a procedural matter. Those who sought to defend the ban on marriage did not have legal standing (it is none of their business in legalese) to defend the same-sex marriage ban.
The second case is of far more importance. It strikes down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act as a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause. The federal government can’t pick and choose which marriage laws it will recognize.
“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,” Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority. “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.”
We would agree with the court’s majority, and that is why we favor gay marriage in Washington state.
The law in Washington is not a mandate, it simply offers all an equal opportunity to the legal rights the state gives those who are married. Churches are not required to perform same-sex marriages.
Others, including members of Congress, remain opposed to gay marriage. And they will continue to seek federal legislation to block same-sex marriage anywhere in the country. The high court’s DOMA ruling will make it difficult, but the effort will be made.
Those efforts, as well as those that favor gay marriage, will be challenged in court. The courts do not rule (or, at least, they should not rule) on whether they agree or disagree with the law, they must simply make rulings based on the constitutional concerns addressed.
This can cause the rulings to apply to only the state in question or the case could be sent back down to a lower court. (That’s likely what will happen in the wake of the Proposition 8 ruling.)
The overall issue of same-sex marriage in 50 states overseen by 50 government is, to say the least, complicated. It will take years — maybe decades — for the nation to reach a consensus that’s constitutional.