WASHINGTON — Two landmark Supreme Court rulings that bolster gay-marriage rights don’t remove all barriers to same-sex unions. Some questions and answers about Wednesday’s rulings regarding the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8:
Q: Can you boil down these two big rulings to the basics?
A: In the federal case, the court said legally married gay couples are entitled to the same federal benefits available to straight couples. In the other case, it cleared the way for gay marriages to resume in California, where voters banned them in 2008.
Q: What’s all this talk about DOMA?
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A: DOMA is the federal Defense of Marriage Act, enacted in 1996. The court on Wednesday struck down the section of that law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law. That’s what had denied married gay couples access to a variety of federal benefits and programs that are available to straight couples.
Q: What did the court say about DOMA?
A: The justices by a 5-4 vote said the federal law denying benefits to gay married couples was unconstitutional because it denied them equal protection of the laws.
Q: What type of federal benefits are we talking about?
A: More than you’d expect. There are more than 1,000 federal laws in which marital status matters, covering everything from income and inheritance taxes to health benefits and pensions. In states where gay marriage is legal, same-sex couples may be looking forward to filing their income taxes in April: married, filing jointly.
Q: Why does it matter where a gay couple lives?
A: It’s complicated. Social Security survivor benefits, for example, depend on where a couple reside when a spouse dies. If that happens in a state that bans or does not recognize same-sex marriage, it’s not certain the surviving spouse will be entitled to the payments. Immigration law, meanwhile, only looks at where people were married, not where they live.
Q: Why the focus on California?
A: The second case the court addressed related to a 2008 state ballot proposition, Proposition 8, that added a ban on gay marriage to the California Constitution. The high court didn’t rule on the merits of that ballot proposal, but it left in place a court’s declaration that the proposition is unconstitutional.
Q: When will gay marriages resume in California?
A: The ruling on Prop 8 will go into effect in 25 days, or Sunday, July 21. If normal procedures are followed, at that time the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco will lift its stay on the original 2010 decision by U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker declaring Prop 8 unconstitutional. “The normal process is for this court to wait to be notified of the judgment by the clerk of the Supreme Court. That won’t happen until the 25-day period expires. Once the judgment is received, the panel that decided the case will take action,” David Madden, a 9th Circuit official, said.
At a news conference, California Attorney General Kamala Harris asked for the 9th Circuit to act immediately, before the 25-day period is over, and Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday ordered California’s 58 counties to begin issuing marriage licenses “as soon as the 9th Circuit confirms the stay is lifted.”
Q: What does the U.S. marriage map look like right now?
A: It’s a patchwork. Same-sex marriage is legal in 12 states, including Washington, and the District of Columbia — representing 18 percent of the U.S. population. When gay marriage resumes in California, the figure will jump to 30 percent. Twenty-nine states have constitutional amendments that ban gay marriage. Six states have laws that ban it. Two states neither allow gay marriage nor ban it.
Q: How many same-sex couples in the U.S. have been legally married?
A: The numbers are squishy. The Pew Research Center estimates there have been at least 71,000 legal marriages since 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize them, but says there are almost certainly more. The Williams Institute, a UCLA-based think tank, says about 114,000 couples are legally married and more than 108,000 are in civil unions or registered domestic partnerships. In California alone, 18,000 same-sex couples were married during the 142 days gay unions were legal in 2008.
Q: How do the court’s rulings apply to states that don’t have gay marriage?
A: They don’t affect those states. The court avoided giving a ruling on nationwide grounds because, the court majority argued, the supporters of Prop 8 did not have the legal standing to appeal the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court. The court majority said the Prop 8 sponsors did not suffer injury as a result of the original 2010 ruling striking down the ballot measure. The rulings will not end the debate in those states.
Q: What more could the Supreme Court have done?
A: It could have given gay Americans the same constitutional right to marry as heterosexuals. Instead, it sidestepped the question of whether banning gay marriage is unconstitutional.
Q: Could the court, in the future, rule on whether there is a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage?
A: Yes. Unlike California, where Brown and Harris refused to defend Prop 8 in federal court, there are other states whose elected officials will defend bans on gay marriage. That could set up an appeal to the Supreme Court again.
Q: What’s President Obama’s take on this?
A: He welcomed the ruling striking down part of DOMA and directed Attorney General Eric Holder to make sure federal laws are in sync with the ruling. Obama, who endorsed gay marriage last year, broke with his Republican and Democratic predecessors and declined to defend the law in court. The Defense Department says it is beginning the process to extend health care, housing and other federal benefits to the same-sex spouses of members of the military.
Q: What is the public’s view of gay marriage?
A: Public support has grown substantially in the past few years, with a majority now favoring legal marriage for gay couples. There’s even broader support for extending to gay couples the same legal rights and benefits available to married straight couples. An Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll last fall found 63 percent favored granting gay couples the same legal benefits straight couples had, and 53 percent favored legal recognition of same-sex marriages.
Q: What happens next?
A: Supporters of gay marriage will keep pressing to legalize same-sex unions in all states. Opponents of same-sex marriage said they will try to fight state by state and argue that the issue should be settled locally. That means more battles in individual states, and more visits to the Supreme Court.