The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday begrudgingly came down on the side of marriage equality in one major decision and chose to step aside on another. Both are seminal actions that have the practical effect of changing the political landscape and debate on gay-rights issues.
Make no mistake, June 26, 2013, will rightly become a landmark date in the struggle for equality.
The court ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional because it denied equal federal benefits to same-sex couples even in places where same-sex marriage is legal. In a related issue, the court chose to let stand a decision by a federal judge that California's voter-approved Proposition 8, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, is unconstitutional.
Taking the two decisions collectively removes much ambiguity from the gay rights discussion. The decisions, along with a clear and substantial shift in popular opinion, alter the narrative on gay rights from a matter of if to a matter of when.
Apparently, the court could not muster the five votes necessary to find California's Proposition 8 unconstitutional, but it did let stand the lower court decision that said it was when it ruled those appealing that decision did not have legal standing to file the appeal.
A 5-4 majority of political oddfellows ruled that only state officials, specifically the governor and the attorney general, had the right to defend attacks against an enacted initiative. Both had refused to do so in the case of Prop. 8.
We are happy that the court has chosen not to overturn the lower court decision. But we are somewhat concerned about the reasoning it used. We agree with the minority opinion — which saw liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor and conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito on the same side — that such a ruling could have a chilling effect on the initiative process if the court allows state officials to simply refuse to enforce what the people have chosen to approve.
Be that as it may, the decisions are significant and welcome news.