Brown v. Board of Education; United States v. Windsor: do they belong together? Yes they do: today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Windsor case is just that historic. In a very specific and non-technical way Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion makes clear what the 5-4 court ruling says the Constitution requires: the “[Defense of Marriage Act] is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.” You can read the professional reports on the decisions announced today here and here, and elsewhere, but here’s my take:
All people deserve equal treatment under the law. If the federal government grants certain legal privileges to dual-sex couples who are legally married under the laws of their state, the same privileges must be available to single-sex couples who are legally married under the laws of their state. Equal treatment; fairness. The court did not rule on the constitutionality of gay marriage today; it ruled on an issue of equality before the law. In refusing to rule on the Hollingsworth case regarding California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in the state, it sidestepped ruling one way or another on the constitutionality of gay marriage…perhaps another day. But that decision does have the effect of re-legalizing gay marriage in California, making it state #13.
In practical terms the Windsor ruling means same-sex couples should be treated the same way as opposite-sex couples when it comes to federal tax law and Social Security and insurance and immigration, all that federal stuff. In fact there are more than a thousand benefits coming into play here, and McClatchy does a good job summarizing that here. And for fun, TV Guide summarizes the celebrity reaction to the rulings here.
This is not about what one religion or another teaches about homosexuality; this is about how the civil law treats American citizens regardless of their religious belief, or their gender or their race or national origin. A religion is free to believe and teach what it wants about the morality of homosexual behavior or same-sex marriage, and its teachings and laws are important to the members in good standing of that particular faith. But those teachings are not binding on Americans who are not members of that denomination. The civil law, which orders how we all deal with one another in the secular society outside the confines of our many private clubs, is blind to such moral questions. States have the right to decide who can “marry” and who can’t, and the federal government has to treat all “married” couples in the same way, regardless of the gender of the spouses. Simple, really. Fair. American. Congratulations, U.S.A., on another successful day at the office.