10 Years After Lawrence v. Texas, Supreme Court Issues Another Landmark Gay Rights Ruling

In a historic ruling today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, while avoiding a larger ruling on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans.

The court ruled 5-4 that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act–which defines marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of federal benefits–violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.

The ruling means that same-sex couples in the 12 states (and the District of Columbia) where same-sex marriages are performed will have access to the more than 1,000 federal benefits afforded to married straight couples, including the right to sponsor foreign partners or spouses for citizenship (which was a contentious issue in the context of immigration reform).

The court avoided deciding the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, ruling 5-4 that the initiative’s supporters lacked standing to defend the law in court. The case was sent back to the Ninth Circuit, with instructions to dismiss the appeal.

The Supreme Court’s decision lets stand Judge Vaughn Walker’s 2010 ruling in Perry v. Brown, which declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment (that ruling was stayed pending appeal by Prop 8’s supporters).

California is now preparing to resume performing same-sex marriages, although they’ll probably have to wait another month since Prop 8’s supporters have 25 days to ask the Supreme Court for a re-hearing, and it will take another few days for the Ninth Circuit to formally dismiss the appeal.

It’s probably no coincidence that today is also the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down all existing sodomy laws in the U.S. (For those interested in that case, I recommend Flagrant Conduct, Dale Carpenter’s detailed account of the case.)

Today’s ruling is a victory for same-sex equality, but is it enough? Personally, I would have liked to have seen the Supreme Court strike down all state constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage. On the other hand, things could have been worse: the Supreme Court could have upheld the Defense of Marriage Act.

The truth is, sometimes freedom comes in dozens of small victories. Today, equality and liberty won out over bigotry and coercion. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? One things for sure, though…the future looks bright.

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