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Gay marriage: Supreme Court strikes down DOMA, avoids decision on Proposition 8

Published: Tuesday, July 7 2015 2:06 p.m. MDT

Arriving at the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, June 26, 2013, on a final day for decisions in two gay marriage cases are plaintiffs in the California Proposition 8 case, from left, Paul Katami, his partner Jeff Zarrillo, and Sandy Stier and her partner Kris Perry. (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press) Arriving at the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, June 26, 2013, on a final day for decisions in two gay marriage cases are plaintiffs in the California Proposition 8 case, from left, Paul Katami, his partner Jeff Zarrillo, and Sandy Stier and her partner Kris Perry. (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press)

In two long-awaited decisions issued today, The Supreme Court refused to decide on California's Proposition 8, and in so doing legalized gay marriage in the Golden State.

In a separate decision, the Court swept away a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act today, giving gay marriage activists a major victory that validates same-sex marriages for federal tax and inheritance laws in states where they are legal.

Both cases played out as most experts had predicted. There were no real surprises.

The 5-4 decision in the DOMA case was written by swing-voting Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had already established a track record striking down two state laws that stigmatized gays and lesbians.

"The federal statute is invalid," Kennedy wrote, "for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. 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."

California's Proposition 8 plaintiffs Sandy Steir, center, holds hands with her partner Kris Perry, right, as they and Jeff Zarrillo, and Paul Katami, left, walk into the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, June 26, 2013.  The Supreme Court is meeting to deliver opinions in two cases that could dramatically alter the rights of gay people across the United States. The justices are expected to decide their first-ever cases about gay marriage Wednesday in their last session before the court's summer break. (Cliff Owen, Associated Press) California's Proposition 8 plaintiffs Sandy Steir, center, holds hands with her partner Kris Perry, right, as they and Jeff Zarrillo, and Paul Katami, left, walk into the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, June 26, 2013. The Supreme Court is meeting to deliver opinions in two cases that could dramatically alter the rights of gay people across the United States. The justices are expected to decide their first-ever cases about gay marriage Wednesday in their last session before the court's summer break. (Cliff Owen, Associated Press)

The DOMA decision, U.S. v. Windsor, did not establish a right to gay marriage. It did strike down a federal statute defining marriage for purposes of federal law, placing the authority to determine a valid marriage at the state level.

In the case of California's Proposition 8, the court held that it could not reach the merits because the team defending the constitutional amendment lacked "standing." This came about because the state's attorney general had refused to defend the law.

Kennedy's authoring of the DOMA decision was no surprise. He authored the 1996 decision Roemer v. Evans, which struck down a Colorado law on the basis that it singled out gays and lesbians for particular "animus," and therefore violated equal protection principles. He also authored the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision, which struck down sodomy laws on similar grounds.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, left, and Adam Umhoefer, executive director of the American Foundation for Equal Rights arrive at the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, June 26, 2013.  (Cliff Owen, Associated Press) Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, left, and Adam Umhoefer, executive director of the American Foundation for Equal Rights arrive at the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, June 26, 2013. (Cliff Owen, Associated Press)

As in those two cases, the legal reasoning Kennedy used today was fuzzier than some would like. He declined to elevate sexual preference to a "protected class" under the equal protection clause, but he reached the same results without formally defining a new class. The result is a hazy middle ground that will likely invite further litigation.

And, indeed, gay activists are already eying the next step. "Federal recognition for lesbian and gay couples is a massive turning point for equality, but it is not enough until every family is guaranteed complete access to the protections they need regardless of state borders,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin in statement. “The Administration must take every possible step to ensure this landmark ruling treats every lawfully-married couple across the country with the equality our Constitution guarantees.”

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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