Supreme Court: Both sides in gay marriage debate voice optimism

The Supreme Court's decision to take up appeals over DOMA and California's Prop. 8 ban on gay marriage elicited positive reactions from advocates on both sides of the contentious issue.

Ben Margot/AP
In this 2010 photo, couple Tara Walsh, left, and Wen Minkoff embrace outside City Hall in San Francisco. The U.S. Supreme Court decided Friday to hear the appeal of a ruling that struck down Proposition 8, the state’s measure that banned same sex marriages.

Both sides of the contentious debate over same-sex marriage in America are expressing optimism over the news Friday that the US Supreme Court has agreed to take up two potential landmark gay rights cases.

The high court announced it would hear arguments in a case testing the constitutionality of California’s Prop. 8 ban on same-sex marriage.

It also said it would hear the case of an elderly New York City woman who claims the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates her right to have her same-sex marriage recognized and respected by the federal government on the same terms as marriages of opposite-sex couples.

DOMA restricts receipt of federal spousal benefits to marriages comprised of one man and one woman. Same-sex spouses who are legally married in their home states are nonetheless barred from receiving federal benefits under the 1996 law.

The high court action comes a month after voters in three states – Maryland, Washington, and Maine – agreed to join six other states and the District of Columbia in embracing same-sex marriages.

“With our wins at the ballot box last month and the fight for marriage equality reaching our nation’s highest court, we have reached a turning point in this noble struggle,” said Chad Griffin, president of the gay rights group, Human Rights Campaign.

“Today’s announcement gives hope that we will see a landmark Supreme Court ruling for marriage this term,” he said in a statement.

Kate Kendell, of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, sounded similarly optimistic.

“We are confident the Supreme Court will strike down DOMA once and for all next year, and, after four long years, will finally erase the stain of Proposition 8 and restore marriage equality to California couples,” she said.

“The day is now clearly in sight when the federal government, the state of California, and every state will recognize that same-sex couples and their children are entitled to the same respect and recognition as every other family,” Ms. Kendell said.

At the same time, those defending the traditional definition of marriage – as the union of one man and one woman – also viewed the court’s action as a step forward toward legal vindication of their position.

John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, said the court’s decision to take up the Prop. 8 case suggests an intent by the justices to reinstate California’s ban on same-sex marriage.

“We believe it is a strong signal that the court will reverse the lower courts and uphold Proposition 8,” Mr. Eastman said.

“Had the Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts’ decisions invalidating Proposition 8, it could simply have declined to grant … the case,” Eastman said. “It’s a strong signal that the justices are concerned with the rogue rulings that have come out of San Francisco.”

Eastman added that the Prop. 8 appeals court decision was written by Judge Stephen Reinhart. “It’s worth noting that Judge Reinhart is the most overruled judge in America. I think this case will add to his record.”

Others disagreed.

Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, said the high court action opens the way for a civil rights breakthrough for same-sex spouses.

“Gay and lesbian couples in California – and indeed all over this country – now look to the Supreme Court to affirm that the Constitution does not permit states to strip something as important as the freedom to marry away from one group of Americans,” he said.

Mr. Wolfson urged the justices to move quickly to affirm the 10 federal court judges who have ruled in recent years that DOMA is unconstitutional.

“When it comes to the whole federal safety net that accompanies marriage – access to Social Security survivorship, health coverage, family leave, fair tax treatment, family immigration, and over 1,000 other protections and responsibilities – couples who are legally married in the states should be treated by the federal government as what they are: married,” Wolfson said.

Others viewed the high court’s task in broader terms.

“Today, the Supreme Court has put itself on the path of deciding the most contentious civil rights issue of our day,” said David Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“By taking both cases, the court is boldly asserting its role in same-sex marriage,” he said.

Professor Cohen said the justices have a choice to either follow the example of prior courts that have ruled to expand civil rights or those that ruled in ways that contracted civil rights. Given shifting public opinion in support of gay rights and same-sex marriage, the professor says it is unlikely that the court will rule against a broader conception of marriage.

Jim Campbell, a lawyer with the conservative group, Alliance Defending Freedom, stressed that Americans have a right to preserve the traditional definition of marriage. He said the institution forms a “fundamental building block of civilization.”

“Marriage between a man and a woman is a universal good that diverse cultures and faiths have honored throughout the history of Western civilization,” he said. “Marriage expresses the truth that men and women bring distinct, irreplaceable gifts to family life.”

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