Gay marriages recognized by states will now also be recognized by the federal government, due to a landmark decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court today.
In a 5-4 decision in the case Windsor v. U.S., the Court found that the Defense of Marriage Act — a law restricting federal marriage benefits to opposite-sex marriages — is “unconstitutional as [it is] a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.”
The decision delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy, to whom many experts refer as the swing vote on the Court, decried DOMA as “seek[ing] to injure the very class that New York [sought] to protect … [by violating] basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.”
In another opinion released today, the Court dismissed the appeal of a federal district court’s invalidation of California’s Proposition 8, a referendum which sought to ban same-sex marriage in the state.
Its 5-4 decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry dismissed the appeal on the grounds that the petitioners — a private group of individuals who successfully sponsored the Prop 8 referendum — did not have standing to appeal the federal district court’s decision.
“We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the Hollingsworth decision. “We decline to do so for the first time here.”
Today’s Supreme Court decisions have been widely praised by Penn student leaders and alumni.
For 2003 Law School graduate Eric Klinger-Wilensky, today’s Windsor decision was a “huge win” for him and his husband.
“Emotionally, [today’s decision] means our marriages are equal,” he said. “That’s the most important thing.”
Klinger-Wilensky was religiously married to his husband, 2001 Engineering graduate Kurt Klinger, in 2008 at a ceremony in Philadelphia. In April of 2012, they were legally married in New York City. “And I guess we were federally married today,” Klinger-Wilensky said.
For Klinger-Wilensky, the road to equality under the law has been filled with anxiety.
“To be honest, the law was so complicated before this change that I was just trying to close my eyes and hope that I didn’t have to deal with it,” he said. “I’m so happy that we won.”
“It’s a great day for our community just as it is for America as a whole,” 1979 Wharton graduate Scott Davenport, who is chief operating officer of Freedom to Marry, said. “Today’s decisions affirmed that the love and commitment of all Americans are equal.”
Director of the LGBT Center at Penn Bob Schoenberg also said that he was “very pleased and excited” by the decision.
“I think it will take some time … to analyze the decision and its implications,” he said. “[But] we couldn’t have hoped for much more than what we got.”
Schoenberg also noted how supportive the University has been in the past of same-sex couples.
Currently, Penn offers the same benefits to married employees and employees with same-sex domestic partners. The University also provides up to $1,500 extra per year to employees with same-sex partners, because federal and state laws did not acknowledge same-sex domestic partners as dependents.
Additionally, the College Republicans and the Penn Democrats have worked together to address the topic of same-sex marriage on numerous occasions, including a Valentine’s Day marriage equality event which they co-sponsored.
“We have worked very closely with the Penn Dems on this issue … and I’m happy to say this was a bipartisan cause,” rising College senior and College Republicans President Arielle Klepach said.
“I don’t think there could have been a better outcome,” rising College junior and Penn Dems President Matt Kalmans said. “It gives me a lot of hope in the judicial system.”
Neither the Windsor nor the Hollingsworth decisions will have an effect on Pennsylvania laws, although the verdict in Windsor will afford legally married couples in the state and across the country the same federal benefits granted to opposite-sex couples.
Political science professor Rogers Smith explained in an email that the decision in Windsor will have a “significant impact” on same-sex couples as they will be “treated as legally married for purposes of the thousands of federal laws that affect them.”
One such law that he noted was the federal estate tax over which the petitioner Edith Windsor was suing the federal government.
As for Hollingsworth, Smith noted that because “the Court did not hold there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage at [the] present,” the effects of the case will only be felt in California.
“[Hollingsworth v. Perry] holds simply that those who initiated a successful referendum do not have standing to sue in federal court if it is overturned,” Smith said. “This has the effect of restoring the legality of same-sex marriages in California, because it lets the California court decision upholding them stand. But it has few if any implications for same-sex marriages in Pennsylvania.”
However, Smith does not see these decisions as the end to the debate over same-sex marriage in America.
“The Court is likely to receive cases [in the future] arguing that Americans have a constitutional right to same-sex marriage based on equal protection … and right of privacy that no state government can refuse to recognize,” Smith said.
He also noted that today’s decision will most likely serve as a basis for future court actions because “Justice Kennedy stresses [in his opinion] that these marriages have come to be widely regarded not only as legitimate but as of fundamental importance by growing numbers of Americans.”
Both Davenport and rising College junior and Lambda Alliance Chair Dawn Androphy also feel that the battle for equal rights is not yet over.
“I’m really hoping that what these rulings do is push people to keep moving towards equality,” Androphy said.
“There’s definitely still work to do,” Davenport added. “There are still 37 states we need to win marriage in.”
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