WEDNESDAY SAW a triumph in the continuing struggle for equality in America. A divided Supreme Court rolled back two discriminatory laws, California’s Proposition 8 and a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Though not a total victory for those who believe gay and lesbian couples everywhere should be able to marry, the decisions nonetheless built upon and extended what has been a momentous half year for gay rights.
On Proposition 8, the court ruled on technical grounds, preserving a lower court’s order that struck down the prohibition on same-sex marriage in California. On DOMA, the court invoked the Fifth Amendment to repudiate the part of the law that bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex couples legally joined in states that permit gay marriage.
Writing for the 5-to-4 majority in the DOMA case, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy argued that the federal law’s “avowed purpose and practical effect are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states.” Congress went out of its way to devalue certain marriages that states had chosen to recognize in their capacity as arbiters of what marriage can be within their own borders. The discrimination’s “unusual character” led the majority to conclude that its “principal purpose” was to “impose inequality” and that it offended the Fifth Amendment’s requirement that all Americans deserve due process of law.