DOMA Unconstitutional, Prop 8 Dismissed. What’s Next?

The Supreme Court mostly settled the marriage equality question by striking DOMA and Prop 8 but refused to broadly recognize same-sex marriage rights.

A month since the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down, the limits of the decision are already being tested in federal courts across the country. Rainbow flag via Shutterstockl

Today is a historic, if a little confusing, day for marriage equality.

In two separate opinions, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that marriage is fundamentally a state’s matter but left open the question of how to resolve conflicts between state marriage laws. This happened first in the 5-4 decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the law violated both equal liberty interests by singling out same-sex couples from federal benefits and principles of federalism that keep marriage a matter of state concern.

The ruling, the majority held, was confined to those states that already recognize same-sex marriage, meaning that same-sex couples who are legally married now qualify for benefits under federal law. The ruling did not affirmatively strike state bans on same-sex marriage, meaning that in states that have banned same sex-marriage, those bans stand for now.

In what became seen as the companion case, the Court, also in a 5-4 vote, dismissed the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8 on standing grounds, holding that the Ninth Circuit shouldn’t have taken up the appeal and that the lower court ruling that struck the same sex marriage ban should stand.

That means same-sex marriage returns to California.

The combined effect of the rulings is still being sorted out, but early analysis indicates (as I predicted here) that the battle over same-sex marriage will move forward in the states. Those states that already recognize same-sex marriage can legally continue to do so. Those states with state-level bans on same-sex marriage can brace for a wave of mini-DOMA litigation challenging those bans, while legally married couples in one state who move to a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage could spark a new, separate challenge for the Supreme Court to sort out: Does the Constitution’s requirement that states give full-faith and credit to laws from other states include recognition of same-sex marriage?

In short, today was a win for marriage equality, but a qualified one. The battle now moves full-steam ahead in the states until it is truly universal.