The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Wednesday to eliminate a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denied federal benefits to married gay couples brought down yet another barrier to equal rights for gays in America. Massachusetts can be proud that the state played a key role in bringing about this landmark decision.
In its twin rulings, both by the familiar 5-4 vote, on DOMA and on California's Proposition 8 banning gay marriage, the Court avoided large statements on gay marriage law in favor of narrow decisions. This, however, does not lessen their significance. In the DOMA ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a regular swing vote who wrote the majority opinion, declared that "DOMA's principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriage and make them unequal." In that statement, Justice Kennedy, who was joined by the court's four-member liberal wing in forming a majority, got at the essence of DOMA's transparent unconstitutionality.
The ground began shaking beneath the 1996 law when Massachusetts legalized gay marriage nearly a decade ago. Other states began following Massachusetts' lead, and when the institution of marriage did not crumble as a result, the arguments against gay marriage and DOMA crumbled instead. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) brought separate lawsuits against DOMA that were later combined, and in 2010, a federal judge in Massachusetts found DOMA to be unconstitutional because it interferes with the right of a state to define marriage and because it denies married gay couples the federal benefits provided to heterosexual married couples. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling became inevitable at that point, and while DOMA still technically stands, the ground beneath it has been rattled by an earthquake.
The court did not take the opportunity to rule on the validity of gay marriage bans in California and other states in its vote on Proposition 8, but in not overturning a trial court's ruling that California's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional the court triggered the resumption of same-sex marriages in the nation's most populous state. California will find, as did Massachusetts, that gay marriage not only poses no threat but encourages more couples of participate in a stabilizing institution.
Wednesday's rulings do not lessen the sting of Tuesday's 5-4 vote to gut a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, in the process encouraging states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas with a history of putting obstacles in the way of minority (read, Democratic) voters to employ similar obstructionist tactics in the 2014 elections. That was a civil rights defeat, but Wednesday brought a civil rights victory, one that will be followed by others as government-enshrined prejudice against gays is swept from the nation.