Justices Stop Short Of Allowing Gay Marriage Nationwide

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On the last day of the term, the Supreme Court issued two rulings expanding gay rights. In the first, the court ruled 5-4 that the central part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — the part defining marriage as between a man and a woman — is unconstitutional. In the second, the court ruled that opponents of gay rights had no standing to appeal a lower court ruling striking down California's Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage. It is expected to clear the way for gay marriage in California.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

All in all, the court's two rulings were historic victories for gay rights advocates. But the justices stopped short of carving out a nationwide right to same-sex marriage. We're going to hear reaction in Congress and we'll talk about what the end of DOMA means for same-sex married couples as far as taxes and benefits. First, NPR's Carrie Johnson explains both decisions.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: In the first case, five justices, led by Anthony Kennedy, found part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Justice Kennedy said Section Three of that federal law, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, deprives gay and lesbian couples of their rights to equal liberty. And in practical terms, it also deprives them of more than one thousand different kinds of federal benefits and programs. The decision applies most clearly to people who are legally married in one of 12 states and the District of Columbia - places that recognize same-sex marriages under their own laws. Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the DOMA case, sued after she got stuck with a $360,000 estate tax bill when her wife, Thea, died. New York recognized their marriage but the federal government didn't. And Windsor wouldn't have had to pay all that money if she had married a man.

EDITH WINDSOR: If I had to survive Thea, what a glorious way to do it. And she would be so pleased. Thank you all.

JOHNSON: Soon after the decision, President Obama directed the Justice Department to review federal statutes and programs to make sure the DOMA ruling's implemented smoothly. The Supreme Court's second gay marriage decision had a more limited impact. A different five-justice majority, led this time by Chief John Roberts, decided not to get to the substance of California's same-sex marriage ban known as Proposition 8. Because the state's Democratic governor and attorney general refused to defend the ban, Roberts said there was no live controversy. The decision leaves in place a lower court ruling that threw out Proposition 8 as unconstitutional. Jennifer Kerns helped pass the ban almost five years ago.

JENNIFER KERNS: I'm here today on behalf of the seven million voters in the state of California to express our disappointment. We believe that every vote should count.

JOHNSON: Two same-sex couples involved in the California case left the Supreme Court building to cheers from the crowd. Plaintiff Paul Katami.

PAUL KATAMI: Today I finally get to look at the man that I love and finally say, will you please marry me?

JOHNSON: His lawyer, David Boies, points out today's the 10-year anniversary of a Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas. That case threw out a law that criminalized gay sex and helped pave the way for today's same-sex marriage decisions, Boies says.

DAVID BOIES: And the next step is to translate the promise that was in Lawrence and that was reaffirmed today in the DOMA case, that every citizen in every state has the right to marry the person that they love.

JOHNSON: It could be a long way away, since more than 30 states still have constitutional bans on gay marriage. But Boies says today's decisions are a huge step forward. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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