Today is a historic, if a little confusing, day for marriage equality.
In two separate opinions, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that marriage is fundamentally a state’s matter but left open the question of how to resolve conflicts between state marriage laws. This happened first in the 5-4 decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the law violated both equal liberty interests by singling out same-sex couples from federal benefits and principles of federalism that keep marriage a matter of state concern.
The ruling, the majority held, was confined to those states that already recognize same-sex marriage, meaning that same-sex couples who are legally married now qualify for benefits under federal law. The ruling did not affirmatively strike state bans on same-sex marriage, meaning that in states that have banned same sex-marriage, those bans stand for now.
In what became seen as the companion case, the Court, also in a 5-4 vote, dismissed the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8 on standing grounds, holding that the Ninth Circuit shouldn’t have taken up the appeal and that the lower court ruling that struck the same sex marriage ban should stand.
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That means same-sex marriage returns to California.
The combined effect of the rulings is still being sorted out, but early analysis indicates (as I predicted here) that the battle over same-sex marriage will move forward in the states. Those states that already recognize same-sex marriage can legally continue to do so. Those states with state-level bans on same-sex marriage can brace for a wave of mini-DOMA litigation challenging those bans, while legally married couples in one state who move to a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage could spark a new, separate challenge for the Supreme Court to sort out: Does the Constitution’s requirement that states give full-faith and credit to laws from other states include recognition of same-sex marriage?
In short, today was a win for marriage equality, but a qualified one. The battle now moves full-steam ahead in the states until it is truly universal.