Even as they celebrated a major victory handed them by the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, gay-marriage supporters across the Seattle area were mindful of the work that lay ahead to secure legal marriage for half a million gay couples living in states that bar them from marrying.
On the lawn outside the old federal courthouse in downtown Seattle, hundreds cheered the long-anticipated ruling, which grants same-sex couples federal benefits in areas ranging from estate planning to immigration, which they have been denied under the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Couples held hands and put their arms around one another. Children waved flags with the = symbol for equality.
The 5-4 ruling on DOMA — and another that allows same-sex marriages to resume in California — comes 10 years after the court’s landmark Lawrence v. Texas decision, which dismantled the nation’s sodomy laws and launched the current march toward legalizing gay marriage.
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Addressing a cheering crowd, state Sen. Ed Murray, primary sponsor of Washington’s gay-marriage law, said, “My friends, the scourge of DOMA is gone. Justice for one family is justice for all families.”
He warned, however, that there was still more work to be done. “This is the side of the mountain, not the top of it,” he said.
But not everyone was celebrating. Opponents of same-sex marriage called the court’s decision political and accused the justices of stepping out of their role as interpreters of law and into one of lawmakers.
Across Washington, most opponents worry the ruling sets the stage for gay marriage to roll across the country. While the justices didn’t declare a constitutional right to marriage for gays and lesbians, they raised the legal standard that states need to reach in order to deny such couples the right to marry.
“What people should be concerned about, what the Supreme Court has done, is said that states will get to tell the federal government how to define these things,” said Joseph Backholm, executive director of Family Policy Institute of Washington.
“The justices have created a new legal standard to reach a political outcome they prefer.”
Energized by ruling
Those celebrating in downtown Seattle on Wednesday believe public opinion is firmly on their side.
For many, the ruling was emotional. Teri Bednarski and her fiancée, Saracristina Garcia, wore matching rainbow earrings and held signs expressing jubilation. They plan to wed this summer.
“It chokes you up to be acknowledged at the level you were acknowledged,” Bednarski said.
Susan Michl carried her son, Noah, 3, strapped to her back, as she arrived at the rally with her fiancée, Becky Rusnak.
Rusnak said the most important part of the ruling is for Noah. Questions about “Where’s Daddy?’’ will certainly trail him through life, but the ruling puts him on better footing to address them, she said.
“It gives him more energy to say, ‘My parents are married like your parents.’”
Many believe the ruling will make it easier to get gay marriage approved in states where it doesn’t now exist or to reverse bans against it in other states. Including California, nearly half a million gay couples live in those states.
“The logic behind the decision can be extended to (address) bans at the state level,” said Peter Nicolas, a law professor at the University of Washington who teaches a course in gay marriage. “You’ll see that happening in the months and years to come.”
Period of uncertainty
The court’s ruling applies only to a provision in DOMA that deals with the more than 1,100 rights and benefits that married couples derive from the federal government.
Untouched is another key DOMA provision that allows states without same-sex marriage laws to ignore gay marriages from other states. Immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling, members of Congress introduced a bill to dismantle the remainder of the federal law.
In the meantime there will remain a period of uncertainty around what changes the high court’s ruling will bring.
What’s clear is that gay couples in Washington and other states where gay marriage is legal will be eligible for all the federal benefits of marriage.
What’s less clear, said Nicolas, is what happens when those couples move to a state such as Idaho that doesn’t recognize gay marriages.
For Seattle residents Joe Brokken, 35, and Joe Mirabella, 36, together nearly 10 years, the ruling means they can resume plans to buy a home together under the federal government’s VA home-loan program.
First the men would have to move up their wedding plans from next February to sometime this summer.
“We did the math and based on the interest rate, the difference between a VA and a conventional loan would be $8,000 over five years,” Mirabella said.
Brokken said the couple had been looking at homes for a year, but put their homebuying on hold in the spring when they realized they could qualify for a better loan through the VA. On average, the interest rate on such loans often trails the market rate by half a percentage point.
“For the first time, I’ll be a homeowner,” he said.
Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @turnbullL.