The Supreme Court today issued two major decisions favoring same-sex marriage.
In its first move, the court ruled that a significant portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional, saying it "violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the federal government."
"DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court.
In the second case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, the court essentially allowed same-sex marriages to resume in California. The court said that supporters of the state ban on same-sex marriages, 2008's Proposition 8, couldn't challenge a lower court's decision striking it down.
The first case, United States v. Windsor, challenged the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996, which defines marriage as " only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." (It also says states don't have to recognize other states' same-sex marriages; there is debate over how today's ruling will affect that part of the law.) In the case, the widow of a same-sex union recognized by New York sued to receive a federal tax refund on estate taxes she paid—something she would have received had she married a man.
The court's ruling will take effect immediately. It does not automatically establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, but rather said the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages if they are allowed by states.
President Barack Obama already rescinded his support for DOMA in 2011, when he officially declared his support for same-sex marriage. Since then, however, Republicans in the House of Representatives have defended the law.
Hollingsworth v. Perry took on California's Proposition 8, the state's ban on same-sex marriage. Voters approved the measure in 2008, after the California Supreme Court ordered that the state begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Gay rights advocates challenged the ban soon after it passed, and the state of California declined to defend the measure after a district court ruled it unconstitutional. That left the proposition's sponsors to appeal the decision, something the Supreme Court today said they couldn't do.
In 2010, an appeals court deemed Proposition 8 unconstitutional not only because it burdens gay and lesbian couples right to marry, but also because it "creates an irrational classification on the basis of sexual orientation."
But the Supreme Court's ruling today didn't address such questions, and focused on the ability of Prop. 8's sponsors, ProtectMarriage, to defend the law in court.
"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. We decline to do so for the first time here," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.
The votes in both cases were 5-4, though the makeup of the majority decisions differed.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who sided with the majority on the Proposition 8 case, wrote a strongly worded dissent on the DOMA case, which he read aloud from from the bench:
The majority says that the supporters of this Act acted with malice—with the "purpose" "to disparage and to injure" same-sex couples. It says that the motivation for DOMA was to "demean," to "impose inequality," to "impose … a stigma," to deny people "equal dignity," to brand gay people as "unworthy," and to "humiliate" their children. I am sure these accusations are quite untrue. … It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race. … It is hard to admit that one's political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today's Court can handle. Too bad.
Both rulings—especially when viewed together—have profound political and congregational implications, said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Though the Proposition 8 ruling technically applies only to California citizens, language in the DOMAdecision implies that the consequences will be broad.
"It is a loss for those who are concerned about marriage," he said, "but it is not an ultimate loss. If marriage is as resilient as the Bible tells us it is, marriage cannot be raptured away by a Supreme Court decision."
Still, Moore says, the decisions reveal the illusion that evangelical Christians are some sort of moral majority in this country.
"Appealing to family values as though the rest of the culture understands what that means is no longer viable. The church has to take a concentrated effort at teaching a counter-cultural understanding of marital fidelity and family life," he said. "That's not unusual in the history of the church, but it does mean we can't assume the people around us or even in our pews immediately understand the implications of marriage."
The different views of marriage and family are both good news and bad news for the church, Moore said.
"Now we are going to seem, in many ways, freakish to the outside culture, which isn't necessarily bad news. Our position on marriage is no more freakish than a gospel that says it saves sinners and a crucified Christ who is alive. It gives us opportunity to be a contrast," Moore said. "Congregations must be very clear on teaching about marriage. A pastor cannot simply say we ought to have healthy and happy marriages; a pastor needs to articulate what marriage is biblically and how it is rooted in the gospel mystery of Christ and his church."
Ed Stetzer, president of of LifeWay Research, said he doesn't expect the decisions to significantly change church mission.
"I was preaching at Pathway Vineyard Church in Maine on the Sunday after the state of Maine legalized gay marriage," he said in a blog post. "After such a strong statement and shift in the culture around them, what did the believers there do? The same thing they did the week before: loved people, served the hurting, and preached Jesus. Maybe we should follow that example this Sunday. And next Sunday. And the next." Christians have erred, he said, in responding to cultural changes with anger.
Fifty years ago, Stetzer said, "we railed against atheists and Hugh Hefner. They were not necessarily mad at us, but we were mad at them without apology for the lies and immorality they promoted in our world. Over the past five decades, they returned the favor, marginalizing our faith as out of touch and culturally unacceptable. … We can either get furious at them again and perpetuate the cycle (as I am afraid some of us are already doing), or we can respond like Jesus."
The rulings leave the definition of marriage in the hands of each individual state. But Michael McConnell, director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, says "the rhetoric suggests that Justice Kennedy is prepared to hold there's a right to same-sex marriage everywhere."
That opens the door for another suit against DOMA to be filed by a same-sex couple with standing in another state. Justices then could rule in support of federal same-sex marriage rights, though it likely would take more than a couple of years for the right case to come along.
As a result, McConnell says, the rulings also are a good reminder for Christians not to place their faith in the government to uphold Christian standards.
"It's time, if the church believes in what it preaches about marriage, for the church to explain why and particularly to find ways to communicate more effectively to its own young people."
Kellie Fiedorek, litigation counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and who was present at the Supreme Court this morning, says the Supreme Court got it wrong. Still, she told CT that the scene outside was both "crazy" and "encouraging."
"There are so many people from both sides, which is a testament to the reality of this debate (about marriage), which is just beginning," she said.
Now, according to ADF, which served as co-counsel representing ProtectMarriage, "the legal battles over the definition of marriage have provided the perfect opportunity to reintroduce the American people to the goodness and value of marriage."
And ADF senior counsel Austin R. Nimrocks says marriage between one man and one woman will remain "timeless, universal, and special."
"That will not change," he said. "Americans will continue advancing the truth about marriage between a man and a woman and why it matters for children, civil society, and limited government."
But Andrew Marin, founder and president of The Marin Foundation, an organization that seeks "to build bridges between the LGBT community and the church," says difficult conversations about sexual ethics and theology will remain complicated whether or not same-sex marriage is legalized.
"As a body, whether people agree or disagree with the rulings, the church must start functioning in the reality of this new world instead of continuing to function in one's ideal, best case scenario, which does not exist," he said.
Now, the battleground ought to shift toward religious freedom, in order to protect churches' right to preach according to Scripture, which in a number of situations will go against today's ruling, Marin says. But he adds that there is reason to be encouraged on this front: In a statement this morning, President Barack Obama emphasized that the need to "maintain our nation's commitment to religious freedom [is] vital … and how religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions."
In a statement, Focus on the Family president Jim Daly called the rulings "deeply disappointing." He said Christians should not despair but should rather see "new opportunity to shine light into a confused culture."
"The two rulings don't diminish the job of the church to proclaim God's truth to a culture that desperately needs it. As we continue to distance ourselves from God's design for marriage and family, Christians will need to take their oath and commitment to marriage more seriously," Daly said. "The single greatest argument we can present to the world on this issue of marriage is to personally live out marriage in all its God-ordained fullness and radiant beauty."