WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court gave a major boost to marriage equality for gays and lesbians Wednesday, striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and clearing the way for gay marriages in California.
The decisions by the high court do not require the remaining 37 states to authorize same-sex marriage. But even Justice Antonin Scalia, in dissent, said the court’s opinions will be read by judges across the nation as suggesting that bans on gay marriage are unconstitutional.
The DOMA ruling will bring equal rights to more than 100,000 gays and lesbians who were legally married. The justices by a 5-4 vote said the federal law denying benefits to those couples was unconstitutional because it denied them the equal protection of the laws.
The government cannot say these same-sex “unions will be treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. The government cannot insist these same-sex marriages are “less worthy” or viewed as a “second-tier marriage,” he said.
And in the California case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. spoke for the court in a procedural decision that threw out the appeal from the sponsors of Proposition 8, the ballot measure that limited marriage to a man and a woman. The effect of the second decision is to uphold a ruling by a federal judge in San Francisco who ruled gays and lesbians had a constitutional right to marry in California.
As a result of the ruling, California will likely become the 13th state where gay marriage is legal.
[Updated, 8:16 a.m. June 26: The two opinions show the justices were split along ideological lines.
The four liberal justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — joined Kennedy’s opinion to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. They agreed that denying federal recognition and benefits to gay couples violated the Constitution’s promises of liberty and equality.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito dissented, and Chief Justice Roberts dissented in part. He said the court should have dismissed the appeal because the Obama administration did not defend the law.
Roberts refused to state an opinion on the constitutionality of treating gays and lesbians differently. “We may in the future have to resolve challenges to state marriage definitions affecting same-sex couples,” he wrote. “That issue, however, is not before us in this (federal) case.”
Justice Kennedy also stopped short of saying whether he thought state laws banning gay marriage were unconstitutional. He confined his opinion to saying only that the federal government cannot discriminate against legally married same sex couples.]