The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and appeared to clear the way for removing California’s state constitutional prohibition on same-sex marriage, an issue that has played out in the schools as it has elsewhere in society.
“DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for a 5-4 majority. The law undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages, Kennedy said, “for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition.”
Such a differentiation demeans the couple and “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples,” Kennedy said in United States v. Windsor (Case No. 12-307).
He was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
Meanwhile, in Hollingsworth v. Perry (No. 12-307), the case about California’s Proposition 8 that raised repeated references in lower-court decisions and briefs about whether recognition of same-sex marriage would have an impact in the schools, the court held that proponents of the 2008 ballot initiative against gay marriage lacked standing to pursue their appeal of a lower-court decision striking down the measure.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the proponents were not agents of the state and could not substitute for the state officials who refused to defend the law after a federal district court in San Francisco struck it down as a violation of the federal Constitution’s equal-protection guarantee.
Today’s decision prompted California officials to say that county clerks would resume issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, because the Supreme Court’s ruling leaves intact the federal district court ruling.
Lawyers for the Proposition 8 proponents took issue with that interpretation. But many people hailed the decisions, taken together, as major victories for gay rights and same-sex marriage.
""What we have witnessed today is a major milestone in American history—a monumental decision and a huge step forward for civil rights,” Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, said in a written statement. “As an educator, I cannot help but be moved by the thought of all of the children and students we serve whose families will now be made whole.”
Justice Kennedy, in the DOMA decision, said the federal law “makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.”
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the main dissent in the DOMA case, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas and in part by the chief justice. Scalia said the court should have left the debate over same-sex marriage to the political process.
“Some will rejoice in today’s decision, and some will despair at it; that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many,” Scalia said. “But the court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. issued his own dissent, also joined by Thomas, which said the long-term consequences of same-sex marriage on the institution of the family remain unknown.
“As sociologists have documented, it sometimes takes decades to document the effects of social changes—like the sharp rise in divorce rates following the advent of no-fault divorce—on children and society,” Alito said. “At present, no one—including social scientists, philosophers, and historians—can predict with any certainty what the long-term ramifications of widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage will be. And judges are certainly not equipped to make such an assessment.”
In the Proposition 8 case, Roberts was joined by Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan.
Justice Kennedy wrote a dissent joined by Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor, in which he said California’s initiative process and state law gave proponents authority to “appear in court and assert the state’s interest in defending an enacted initiative when the public officials charged with that duty refuse to do so.”
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.