In a historic victory for marriage equality, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and paved the way for same-sex marriages to resume in California. In a 5-to-4 decision, the court ruled the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act — or DOMA — signed by President Clinton into law is unconstitutional. This means that legally married same-sex couples are entitled to claim the same 1,100 federal benefits as heterosexual couples. The Supreme Court also ruled supporters of the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage in California do not have standing to appeal a lower-court ruling that overturned it. This effectively gives the green light for same-sex weddings to proceed in California, the most populous state in the country. We’re joined by Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, two of the plaintiffs in the California marriage cases that established the freedom to marry before Prop 8 went into effect. They have been together for 26 years and married in 2008 before Prop 8 passed. Both work at Marriage Equality USA: Gaffney is the media director, and Lewis is the legal director. "The reality is that the Supreme Court has moved forward the law in a tremendous way with these two cases decided yesterday, but it’s also moved forward the dialogue," Gaffney says.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In a resounding victory for marriage equality, the Supreme Court ruled that married same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits, as it struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. In addition, the court paved the way for same-sex marriages to resume in California. When the five-to-four decision on DOMA was announced, an enormous cheer went up outside the courtroom, and the crowd started chanting, "DOMA is dead!" as couples hugged and cried.
The lead plaintiff in the case was an 84-year-old lesbian named Edith Windsor. She sued the federal government after she was forced to pay additional estate taxes because it did not recognize her marriage to her wife, Thea Spyer. At a press conference, Windsor reacted to the ruling.
EDITH WINDSOR: All you guys now know that the Supreme Court has announced its decision in Windsor v. The United States. And we won everything we asked and hoped for. Wow. I’m honored and humbled and overjoyed to be here today to represent not only the thousands of Americans whose lives—whose lives have been adversely impacted by the Defense of Marriage Act, but those whose hopes and dreams have been constricted by the same discriminatory law. Children born today will grow up in a world without DOMA, and those same children who happen to be gay will be free to love and get married as Thea and I did, but with the same federal benefits, protections and dignity as everyone else. If I had to survive Thea, what a glorious way to do it. And she would be so pleased.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Edith Windsor. In his majority opinion in the DOMA case, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, quote, "The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment," he said.
Meanwhile, in his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, quote, "Even setting aside traditional moral disapproval of same-sex marriage (or indeed same-sex sex), there are many perfectly valid—indeed, downright boring—justifying rationales for this legislation."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Minutes after DOMA was struck down, the Supreme Court declared another victory for same-sex couples. The court announced supporters of the ban on same-sex marriage in California did not have standing to appeal a lower-court ruling that overturned the Proposition 8 ban. This effectively gives the green light for same-sex weddings to proceed in California, the most populous state in the nation. Plaintiffs in the case reacted joyfully to the verdict. This is Kris Perry, Jeffrey Zarrillo and Paul Katami.
KRIS PERRY: Today is a great day for American children and families. Sandy and I want to say how happy we are, not only to be able to return to California and finally get married, but to be able to say to the children in California, "No matter where you live, no matter who your parents are, no matter what family you’re in, you are equal, you are as good as your friends’ parents and as your friends." We believe, from the very beginning, that the importance of this case was to send a message to the children of this country that you are just as good as everybody else, no matter who you love, no matter who your parents love.
JEFFREY ZARRILLO: Today, the court said that I am more equal, that we are more equal, our love is just like our parents’ and our grandparents’, and that any children that we may have in the future will be more secure.
PAUL KATAMI: So, today is a good day. It’s the day I finally get to look at the man that I love and finally say, "Will you please marry me?"
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to San Francisco, where we’re joined by Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis. They were two of the plaintiffs in the California marriage cases that established the freedom to marry before Prop 8 went into effect. They were married, surrounded by friends and family, June of 2008, on the first full day that marriages were legalized in California. Both work at Marriage Equality USA. Stuart’s the media director, and John is the legal director.
Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, welcome to Democracy Now! Stuart, your response to what happened? Because after you were married, well, there was a ban placed on marriages in California—until, well, yesterday, when it looks like they will soon resume.
STUART GAFFNEY: You know, this is a sweet moment. Those of us married in 2008, before the passage of Proposition 8—and there are 18,000 couples just like us—we’re all celebrating our five-year anniversaries right now. And what an anniversary gift we have just received from the U.S. Supreme Court to know that now we’re not just the class of 2008, this sort of footnote in the history of marriage equality in this country, but instead we’re the beginning of an era that now continues of the freedom to marry in California, thanks to this decision yesterday. It’s really a happy day not just for the rights of all fair-minded Americans, but also for our friends who have been waiting for as long as five years to finally be able to legally say, "I do." You showed us the joy from the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, and I can tell you that in San Francisco City Hall, the joy was that much or even greater as we looked around and saw our friends begin to plan their wedding day.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: John Lewis, if you can, take us through the first court decision on DOMA, because the court did basically allow states that continue to ban same-sex marriages to do so. Could you talk about what the import will be across the country, both in states that currently ban same-sex marriage and those that don’t?
JOHN LEWIS: Well, what I thought was bone-striking about both DOMA decision was how much the court talked about the dignity and respect that should be due loving, committed same-sex couples. And in that case, they were talking about couples who are legally married already. And they said that this so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which injures loving, committed same-sex couples, that it demeans their dignity and that it is a humiliation for their children. So, in these terms that the court talked about, about how important laws that hurt lesbian and gay people are to our basic humanity, I think this case is going to serve as a very important precedent as the movement continues, with of course the eventual goal of having a ruling from the United States Supreme Court that says every American, regardless of who you are, who you love, that you have a fundamental right to marry in whatever state you live in this nation.
AMY GOODMAN: Justice Antonin Scalia used his dissent in DOMA to rail against the court’s 2003 decision in the Lawrence v. Texas case that struck down the sodomy law in Texas. Scalia wrote, quote, "When the Court declared a constitutional right to homosexual sodomy, we were assured [that] the case had nothing, nothing at all to do with 'whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter.' [unquote] Now we are told [that] DOMA is invalid because it 'demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects,' with an accompanying citation of Lawrence," he wrote. What exactly does this mean, John?
JOHN LEWIS: Well, I think Justice Scalia mischaracterizes these cases. For hundreds of years now, the United States Supreme Court has built case law based on precedent. And what Lawrence did was it recognized that laws that actually criminalize the physical expression of love between two people of the same gender, they violate the Constitution, because the physical relationship between two people of the same gender is indicative of a relationship of an emotional bond that is far deeper. And what the court did today was it built upon that precedent, and it applied Lawrence to our loving, committed same-sex couples’ marriages. And so, it was building on precedent just like the Supreme Court does today. And that’s exactly what we expect the Supreme Court to do. I would note Justice Scalia is in dissent. A majority of the Supreme Court believes that laws that openly discriminate against same-sex couples, under the federal laws, they do violate the constitutional rights of lesbian and gay people.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to turn to a clip from an interview by conservative radio show host Glenn Beck. He was interviewing Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky following Wednesday’s Supreme Court decisions. Glenn Beck speaks first.
GLENN BECK: I am very concerned. I don’t—I mean, I really don’t care. You get married, you don’t get married. You—you, you know, have homosexual marriage or whatever. First problem with this is if you change one variable—man and a woman to man and man and woman and woman—you cannot then tell me that you can’t logically change the other variable—one man, three women; one woman, four men. You can’t do that. And who are you to say that if I am a devout Muslim and I come over here and I have three wives—who are you to say, if I’m an American citizen, that I can’t have multiple marriages?
SEN. RAND PAUL: Right.
GLENN BECK: I mean—
SEN. RAND PAUL: And I think this is a conundrum and gets back to what you were saying in the opening, whether or not churches should decide this. But it is difficult, because if we have no laws on this, people take it to one extension further: Does it have to be humans? You know, I mean, so there really are—the question is: What social mores—can some social mores be part of legislation? Historically, we did at the state legislative level. We did allow for some social mores to be part of it. Some of them were said to be for health reasons and otherwise. But I’m kind of with you. I see the thousands-of-year tradition of the nucleus of the family unit. I also see that, economically, if you just look without any kind of moral periscope and you say, "What is it that is a leading cause of poverty in our country?" it’s having kids without marriage. The stability of the marriage unit is enormous, and we should not just say, "Oh, we’re punting on it, and marriage can be anything."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Stuart Gaffney, your response to them raising the possibility, one, that this opens the floodgates for polygamy as well as the disintegration of the family?
STUART GAFFNEY: Well, it was interesting to hear it characterized in that clip as a "conundrum." I think it would be more appropriate to say it’s a fallacy and a red herring. We’re talking about marriage, which is a loving commitment between two people. And that is the same argument that was used against couples like my own mom and dad, an interracial couple, who faced over a third of the states barring their marriage a generation ago when they sought to legally marry. When those lawsuits were brought that finally overturned state laws banning interracial marriage and making my family legal in all 50 states, we heard exactly these same sorts of arguments about "What about polygamy?" and also "What about the children?"
And the reality is that the Supreme Court has moved forward the law in a tremendous way with these two cases decided yesterday, but it’s also moved forward the dialogue. In the oral argument, Justice Kennedy asked, "What about the children?" But he asked about it on the—emphasizing the importance of the freedom to marry. He said, "In California, there are 40,000 kids being raised by same-sex couples. What about their rights? Aren’t their voices critical to this case?" And we saw in the decision that it’s not just right in the matter of law, but it’s right as a matter of love and, again, the love between two people. So, just as making my parents’ marriage legal in all 50 states didn’t lead to polygamy, making our marriage legal only resulted in my mom and dad being able to witness our wedding day, which was, for all of us, was one of the happiest days of our lives.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting you raise this, Stuart, in your own family background, because on the one hand you have this major human rights advance, the Supreme Court decisions yesterday, but the day before, the scuttling of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, such an incredible step backward for—for so many people in this country.
STUART GAFFNEY: You know, we are very mindful, as we celebrate the good news in these two marriage cases, of how much work remains to be done. And so, as we were part of a joyous celebration in the streets of San Francisco—and similar celebrations were held in over 75 cities all around the U.S. yesterday—we thought, "This is good news. We should mark this as a landmark day for our community and for all fair-minded Americans. And then tomorrow we should roll up our sleeves and get back to work." There’s clearly more work to be done.
Also, people have sometimes said, "Aren’t you actually a little bit disappointed in some of these rulings? That why don’t we have a 50-state solution coming out of the Supreme Court?" I think the reality—and, as you’re pointing out—is, this is actually the best we could have gotten out of these particular nine justices. Of all the scenarios that were likely to be able to get us five votes from this court, this was the best possible outcome, which is why we’re seeing so much joy in our community, as we now plan our next steps.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to ask about a piece by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, an article yesterday titled "The Big Problem With the Supreme Court’s Prop. 8 Decision." He wrote, quote, "With today’s decision, the Supreme Court is basically gutting the people’s right to pass initiatives that elected officials don’t like and then to defend them all the way to the highest court in the land.
"To me, this has neither the flavor of justice nor of democratic governance, regardless of whether I like the outcome." John, I’m wondering if you could respond to that?
JOHN LEWIS: Yeah, well, the jurisdictional and standing questions before the Supreme Court in the Prop 8 case were actually quite complex, and they cut various ways. I think what is most interesting and important about the case, the Prop 8 case, is that there is a fundamental principle of federal jurisdiction that you cannot continue an appeal, you cannot pursue a lawsuit on and on, if you are not actually personally injured by the law. And something that is just a bedrock truth of the freedom to marry movement is that, as you can see, it’s of enormous benefit to the loving, committed same-sex couples who are directly affected, while it has absolutely no effect on anybody else’s marriage or anybody else. And that was the problem that the backers of Proposition 8 had. Allowing the freedom to marry in California just does not affect them. And because of that, they didn’t have a personal injury that they could then continue this litigation. And that’s why the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and let stand the 136-page district court opinion that, point by point by point, addressed the evidence after a two-week trial and found that Proposition 8’s exclusion of loving, committed same-sex couples from marriage violates our most basic freedom, fairness and equality guarantees in our Constitution.
AMY GOODMAN: John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, I want to thank you very much for being with us. They’ve been a loving, committed couple for 26 years, two of the plaintiffs in the California marriage cases that established the freedom to marry before Prop 8 went into effect. They were married, surrounded by friends and family, in June of 2008 on the first full day marriages were legalized in California. When Prop 8 passed, other same-sex couples were denied the right to marry. The backers of Prop 8 tried to retroactively invalidate their marriage, too, but the California Supreme Court ruled that those marriages still stood. Both John and Stuart work at the grassroots organization Marriage Equality, Stuart the media director, John the legal director. Congratulations to you both.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the fight for same-sex marriage in Maryland. We’ll be speaking with filmmaker Yoruba Richen about her film called The New Black. Stay with us.