AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. A huge day at the Supreme Court as the term came to a dramatic close. The justices struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA. The court's 5-to-4 decision means that the federal government will now have to provide the same benefits to gay, married couples as it does to heterosexual couples.
CORNISH: The second case involved California's Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. In that case, the court declined to decide whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marry. But the ruling cleared the way for the country's most populous state to become the 13th to make same-sex marriage legal. We'll hear more from California but first, here's NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: More than an hour after the Supreme Court issued its two rulings, the Gay Men's Chorus and gay rights advocates were on the sidewalk outside, still celebrating and waving American flags.
UNIDENTIFIED GAY RIGHTS ACTIVISTS: (Singing) And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air...
TOTENBERG: While the Supreme Court did not give marriage equality advocates everything they wanted, the court gave them more than half, and the ruling in the DOMA case supplies ammunition for future battles. DOMA - the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act - bars the federal government from recognizing or providing federal benefits for same-sex couples married in states where such unions are legal. There are more than a thousand such benefits.
The case before the court was illustrative. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, whose 2007 marriage was recognized by the state of New York, were together for 44 years. But when Thea died, Windsor was required to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes that she would not have owed, if her spouse had been of the opposite sex.
EDITH WINDSOR: If Thea was Theo, I would not have had to pay that. Now, that's just a terrible injustice, and I don't expect that from my country.
TOTENBERG: Today, the Supreme Court ruled that this disparate treatment of legally married gay and straight couples amounts to unconstitutional discrimination. Writing for the five-justice court majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that DOMA's principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages, and make them unequal. He listed just a few of the ways DOMA, quote, "touches many aspects of married and family life, from the mundane to the profound," even barring same-sex couples from being buried together in veteran cemeteries.
By refusing to acknowledge the married status of same-sex couples in states where these unions are legal, he said, DOMA tells everyone, including the couple's own children, that their marriages are, quote, "less worthy than the marriages of others." The purpose of the Defense of Marriage Act, as illustrated by its name, he said, is to disparage and injure same-sex couples who are married legally under state law.
Kennedy said the DOMA decision is confined to those states where same-sex marriage is legal, and does not extend to states where same-sex marriage is banned. To that, Justice Antonin Scalia responded in dissent: It takes real cheek for today's majority, as it's going out the door, to leave us with that comforting assurance when what has preceded it is a lengthy lecture on how superior the majority's moral judgment in favor of same-sex marriage is to Congress' hateful moral judgment against it.
Scalia went on to say that the court majority, in striking down DOMA, had, quote, "cheated both sides of a public debate through the democratic branches of government, the elected branches." In doing so, he said, the majority was robbing the winner of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat.
After disposing of the DOMA case, the court moved on to the California case, posing a direct constitutional challenge to a state ban on gay marriage. This time, a different five-justice court majority ducked the broader question, declining to tell the states if there is or is not a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry. If there were such a constitutional right, laws banning same-sex marriage in three-quarters of the states would be invalidated.
The test case before the court, from California, involves a 2008 referendum in which voters approved Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage. After the lower court struck down the ban, state officials - both Republican and Democrat - refused to defend the ban in court; and proponents of the ban were allowed to replace the state as defenders.
Today, however, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for himself and four other justices, said that those Prop 8 proponents had no legal standing to defend the law in court. The Constitution, he said, requires the courts to decide only those cases where the litigants can show an actual concrete injury. And here, the proponents of Prop 8 did not suffer any such injury. Only the state could have appealed to the Supreme Court seeking to reinstate the ban.
Said Roberts: We have never before allowed a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute, when state officials have chosen not to. We decline to do so for the first time here.
Despite the court's hands-off decision in the Prop 8 case, the practical effect of the ruling is to clear the way for same-sex marriages to resume in California. Within hours of the high court ruling, California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered county officials to resume issuing licenses to same-sex couples as soon as legal technicalities are complied with - probably in July.
Andy Pugno, one of the lawyers for the Prop 8 supporters, said he's not sure whether his clients will fight the governor's action.
ANDREW PUGNO: Our legal team is studying this closely, and assessing what options we may have. And we won't know for some time, what those options might be.
TOTENBERG: Other reaction to the Supreme Court decision was predictably mixed. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tweeted simply: Jesus wept. And in Congress, Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp had this to say.
REP. TIMOTHY HUELSKAMP: What I'm afraid that gets lost in this discussion is that a narrow, radical majority of the court has substituted their personal preferences on marriage for the will of voters and their elected representatives here in Washington, D.C. And those who are hurt the most, in my opinion, are the children of America.
TOTENBERG: That view was reiterated by Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council.
TONY PERKINS: Clearly, this is going to have social and cultural implications, if the court is successful in pushing forward on this that the government has no legitimate reason for defining marriage as union of a man and a woman.
TOTENBERG: But gay rights advocates were both relieved and ebullient. Yale law professor Bill Eskridge.
WILLIAM ESKRIDGE JR.: Today's decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, in the marriage cases, are the Cinderella moment for the marriage equality movement. This is the transformative moment legally and constitutionally; from a status quo where marriage equality was not likely, to a constitutional status quo where marriage equality is virtually inevitable in the next five years.
TOTENBERG: Mary Bonauto, of the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, had a more personal take.
MARY BONAUTO: I've been sitting here all morning thinking about the many, many people I've represented over the years, and how much this matters to them to have, you know, the Supreme Court confirm our key constitutional principles - you know, that we come to the government as equals, and the Supreme Court slammed that out of the park today.
TOTENBERG: And what of the future? There are already cases in the pipeline bringing a new constitutional challenge to state bans on same-sex marriage. The most likely to reach the Supreme Court first is from Nevada. But that won't be for a year or two, or perhaps more.
When the issue finally does come back to the Supreme Court, there's little doubt that the language in today's DOMA case will help frame the issue, language that speaks repeatedly of equality for gays and lesbians. Michael McConnell is a former federal appeals court judge, now director of the Stanford Law School Constitution Center. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: McConnell is director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center.]
MICHAEL MCCONNELL: We're in something of a holding pattern. In the short term, what this does is leaves the question of same-sex marriage to the states. And I don't expect that, necessarily, to be the long-term solution.
TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.