Supreme Court Expands Gay Rights In 2 Major Rulings

In one case, a divided court struck down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act, enabling same-sex couples in states that allow gay marriage to qualify for federal benefits. The court also ruled that plaintiffs in a gay marriage case from California lacked standing — it carved the way for gay marriages to resume in California.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

GAY MEN'S CHORUS: (Singing) ...twilight's last gleaming?

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CHORUS: (Singing) Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight, o'er the ramparts...

MONTAGNE: That's the Gay Men's Chorus outside the Supreme Court yesterday, after two major decisions on same-sex marriage. Their joy stemmed from the fact that both rulings were victories for gay marriage. One involving a ban on gay marriage here in California cleared the way for such unions to resume. That set off celebrations throughout the state.

The other case is much more far-reaching. By a 5-4 vote, the justices struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA. That law barred federal recognition of same-sex unions and federal benefits for spouses in gay couples married in the dozen states where that is legal.

Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg with more, beginning with the landmark ruling on DOMA.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The DOMA case was brought by 84-year-old New York widow Edie Windsor, who was forced to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes she would not have owed if her deceased spouse had been a man instead of a woman. Under DOMA, the federal government treated her legal marriage as if it didn't exist. But yesterday, the Supreme Court struck down that law as unconstitutional discrimination. Windsor's reaction was simple.

EDIE WINDSOR: I cried. I cried.

TOTENBERG: Writing for the five-justice court majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that by refusing to acknowledge the married status of same-sex couples in states where these unions are legal, DOMA told everyone - including the couples' own children - that their marriages were less worthy than the marriages of straight couples. The Constitution, he said, does not tolerate such disparate treatment. But at the same time, Kennedy confined his opinion to states where same-sex marriages are legal.

Michael McConnell is director of the Stanford University Constitutional Law Center.

MICHAEL MCCONNELL: I think what Justice Kennedy was trying to do was invalidate DOMA without necessarily striking down state laws nationwide.

TOTENBERG: In a second case, a different five-justice court majority ducked the broader question of whether all states must allow same-sex couples to marry. At issue was California's Proposition 8, a referendum banning gay marriage, adopted in 2008, and subsequently struck down by a federal court after a lengthy trial. Two governors - one Republican, one Democrat - refused to appeal that decision, so the proponents of Prop 8 sought to substitute for the state as defenders of the law. But Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court, said a private third party cannot substitute in court for the state.

Despite the court's hands-off approach, the practical effect is to leave Prop 8 dead in the water. Within hours of the court's ruling, California governor Jerry Brown ordered county officials to resume issuing licenses to same-sex couples as soon as legal formalities are complied with, probably in July.

Supporters of Prop 8 said they were unsure what legal course, if any, they would take next.

Gay rights advocates were ebullient. Yale Law professor Bill Eskridge.

BILL ESKRIDGE: I think this is actually perfect. Get rid of DOMA. You know, that was always an abomination. We now pick up California as what will be the 13th marriage equality jurisdiction soon. And we have huge momentum, and I would see cases coming back in a couple of years.

TOTENBERG: In contrast, opponents of same-sex marriage - especially congressional Republicans - were downbeat.

Here's Tim Walberg of Michigan.

REPRESENTATIVE TIM WALBERG: The desires of adults are not more important than the needs of children.

TOTENBERG: Randy Weber of Texas.

REPRESENTATIVE RANDY WEBER: We see a Supreme Court that seems out of control.

TOTENBERG: And Louie Gohmert, also of Texas.

REPRESENTATIVE LOUIE GOHMERT: What we now have today is a holy quintet who goes against the laws of nature and nature's God.

TOTENBERG: Not that the same-sex marriage issue is settled. There are already other cases in the pipeline challenging state bans on gay marriage, cases that likely will be back at the Supreme Court in just a few short years or less.

In the meantime, the Obama administration is already laying out the rules for which benefits must be accorded for same-sex marriage, and you can expect that the rules and regulations are going to be pretty broad from an administration that favors marriage equality.

Within hours of the decision, the Department of Homeland Security announced that in future, American citizens legally married to foreigners will be able to sponsor their spouses for green cards in the U.S., a privilege that has in the past been granted to heterosexual couples, but not to same-sex married couples. Now that will change.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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