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The End of DOMA and Prop 8: the Marriage Rights Movement Moves On


Last Wednesday, June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States issued historic rulings on two landmark marriage equality cases, which challenged the Defense of Marriage Act  (DOMA) and California’s Prop 8.  After hearing the arguments in March, the Court waited until the last day of its term to announce the verdicts.  Thousands gathered in American cities in anticipation of the big news, and erupted with joy, first when the judges ruled Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and then 25 minutes later – when Prop 8 died, as well.



The rulings returned marriage equality to California, and allowed married gay couples – and their children – across the nation to gain access to over a thousand benefits which until now were reserved for heterosexuals only.  


Shortly after the Supreme Court announced the rulings, President Barack Obama called the Human Rights Campaign’s President Chad Griffin, congratulating him on the victory.  He also personally thanked the couples acting as plaintiffs in the Prop 8 case, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo.


Wednesday was a victory not just for HRC, but for all the civil rights organizations across the United States that have fought to bring marriage equality to the federal level.  Politicians, activists, celebrities, the media, and the public overwhelmingly welcomed the Court’s decision, as the public space filled with messages of love and support.  HRC has compiled a list of the most prominent reactions.


As it was expected, however, not everyone was as ecstatic about the verdicts overturning DOMA and reinstating marriage equality in the Golden State.  Two very different groups of observers felt disappointed with the Court’s decisions.  Indeed, their disappointment is probably the only thing they have in common.  Several catholic churches, anti-gay groups, and several conservative politicians, including Michelle Bachmann, expressed their dismay at the rulings, while many civil rights activists lambasted the court for the limited impact of its verdict on Prop 8.


So what exactly are the consequences of overturning DOMA and Prop 8?




The Court ruled unconstitutional Section 3 of DOMA, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, in a 5-4 vote.  As a result, the federal government is required to recognize same-sex marriages from states where it is legal.  This includes granting gay and lesbian spouses and their children access to a multitude of federal benefits, including tax benefits, health insurance coverage, benefits of inheritance, immigration rights, among others.  


In the case of binational gay couples, the American spouse has now the right to sponsor a green card for his or her non-American partner.  This means long-awaited reunification for hundreds if not thousands of families which until now have been separated due to federal immigration law.


The Court’s decision on DOMA is all what gay rights activists were hoping for.  DOMA’s most controversial and disenfranchising section is now history.


Prop 8


For many, the Court’s decision in the Prop 8 case felt short of expectations.  In essence, the Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutionality of Prop 8, because it could not do so.  The judges declared that the plaintiffs, who challenged the Court of Appeals’ prior decision on striking down Prop 8, had no legal standing at a federal court.  This is because private plaintiffs have the right to resort to this court only when they can demonstrate immediate harm, which was impossible to prove in this case.  The decision effectively upheld the lower court’s ruling, where Prop 8 was indeed deemed unconstitutional.


Today, on June 28, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the hold on gay marriage in the state.  Governor Jerry Brown immediately instructed the California Department of Human Health to issue appropriate instructions to county officials.  The first vows were exchanged just several hours after the Court’s announcement.


The effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Prop 8 are, however, limited to California, and do not affect same-sex marriage bans in other states – a shortcoming that caused disappointment within the gay and civil rights movement.  Marriage equality proponents hoped that, with one swoop, the Supreme Court would return gay marriage to California and overturn bans similar to Prop 8 in other states, as well.  


This is why, for most activists, the fight for equality is not over – not until all 50 states have recognized the right of gay and lesbian Americans to marry.  Both rulings of the Court have certainly provided powerful legal tools for future litigation, but the nation still has to wait until this essential civil right is extended to all Americans, regardless of where they live.