The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday cleared the way for gay marriages to resume in California, but didn't decide anything about same- sex marriages in other states.
In a second case, a different 5-4 majority threw out a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that prevents same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits available to other married couples. The ruling will affect more than 1,100 areas of federal law, including income tax, Social Security and veterans' benefits, but it left to the states whether to permit gay couples to wed or not.
The Modesto Bee did not take a position on Proposition 8 when it was on the ballot in 2008, largely because we believe gay marriage to be a personal — not political — issue. Five years later, it is clear the tide of history and public opinion is moving toward equal marriage rights, as it should. Same-sex marriages do not in any way threaten heterosexual marriages, which are and will remain far more common.
Just since the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the cases in March, legislatures in three states — Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island — have legalized same-sex marriage. When gay marriages resume in California, 13 states plus the District of Columbia — covering 30 percent of the U.S. population — will allow gay marriage.
Poll after poll demonstrates growing acceptance by the public; in a Pew Research Center survey this month, 72 percent of U.S. residents, even those who oppose the idea, said they believe universal gay marriage is inevitable. It is only a matter of time until it is accepted in all states.
Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy of Sacramento, writing for the majority in the Defense of Marriage Act case, said it violated the Constitution's equal protection clause for the federal government to treat lawfully wed gay couples differently than other married couples. DOMA "tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition" and confines them in "a second-tier marriage," he wrote.
The court did not touch another section of DOMA that allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Later Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York reintroduced a bill to repeal DOMA in its entirety.
Until that happens, gay U.S. residents will have different rights depending on their home state. That is fundamentally unfair. The state-by-state approach will be slower. In some ways, however, it may be more democratic than a judicial edict.
In the California case, the ruling was narrow and awkward. The majority of justices said that supporters of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that banned gay marriage, did not have the legal standing to defend it after Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris refused to do so. The court's rationale creates a problem. It sets the precedent that a ballot measure, duly approved by voters, can be nullified if top state officials oppose it.
Practically speaking, county clerks in California are expected to start issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in about a month.
While we recognize that many people in our region still oppose gay marriage, typically on religious grounds, we believe that it is time that gay couples have equality under the law.