COLUMBIA, SC — The U.S. Supreme Courts long-awaited decisions on same-sex marriage Wednesday buoyed South Carolina activists who want to overturn the states ban on gay marriage and civil unions, while opponents vowed to press on in their defense of traditional marriage.
The high court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act as a violation of the constitutional right to equal protection under the law. The ruling gives same-sex couples who have married in states that recognize gay unions the same federal tax, health and pension benefits that are now given to all other married Americans.
The court dismissed the case on Californias 2008 Proposition 8 referendum banning gay marriage, an initiative the states governor and attorney general had refused to defend. That means California likely will again recognize same-sex marriage.
This is an enormous victory and a joyous day for loving, married couples and their families, and for equal justice under the law, said Ryan Wilson, executive director of S.C. Equality. Today, the Supreme Court affirmed that all loving and committed couples who marry deserve equal legal respect and treatment.
Wilson and other activists see the ground shifting in their favor both in the state and across the nation, as more Americans appear willing to extend rights to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community as a matter of social justice. Same-sex marriage is legal in 12 states, not including California, and the District of Columbia.
But some religious leaders lamented the decision as undermining the traditional view of marriage and family.
Roman Catholic Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, leader of the Diocese of Charleston, said he was disappointed by the decision because for us, as Catholics and beyond Catholics, for many, many people, marriage is looked to as the basic support for family life. We look at it as the marriage of one man, one woman for life.
Clearly, the overturning of the 17-year-old law provides impetus for legal assaults in states such as South Carolina, which passed a 2006 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.
While the ruling has no immediate effect on South Carolina, what this case does is signal a willingness on the part of the court to validate same-sex marriage, said University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black.
The court did not establish a constitutional right to marriage for those of the same gender, but Black noted, there are cases in the pipeline that will probably make it to the Supreme Court that will effectively decide the constitutionality of South Carolinas amendment.
This is a warning flag do you want to be on the wrong side of history, Black said of states that are weighing the same-sex issue. The court has effectively given them another two to four years to get on the right side of history. I dont think it will have a change on the politics here.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority 5-4 opinion in the DOMA case, joined by four liberal-leaning justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was in the minority, as were justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Alito argued that the decision should be left to the states.
The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity, Kennedy wrote.
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.
The days rulings are clear for people who were married and live in states that allow same-sex marriage. They now are eligible for federal benefits.
The picture is more complicated for same-sex couples who traveled to another state to get married legally, or who have moved from a gay-marriage state since being wed.
Their eligibility depends on the benefits they are seeking. For instance, immigration law focuses on where people were married, not where they live. But eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits basically depend on where a couple is living when a spouse dies.
Guglielmone, the Catholic bishop, said he understood and acknowledged the rights of gays to seek equal civil benefits. But he said he must look to the spiritual moorings of his faith, which claim marriage as a sacred bond between a man and woman and the foundation for creation of the family.
In no way do I wish to deny the right of those in homosexual relations to government benefits, he said. To say that marriage and homosexual unions are on the same moral plane, that is difficult.
Palmetto Family Alliance president Oran Smith took some consolation in the courts reticence to establish a constitutional right to gay unions.
There was not a 50-state solution proposed or handed down, Smith said. It just has (Chief Justice) John Roberts fingerprints all over it. Like in the Medicaid case, there is something for everyone.
Smith acknowledged that attitudes toward gay marriage have changed in the seven years since the S.C. amendment was passed by a 78-22 margin. But he said he believes it would still pass today.
I think there might be some slippage but I think there is no question if we took another vote today, it will still pass, Smith said. I think it would be a win for traditional, natural marriage.
The Associated Press contributed.