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The justices rule in favor of equality

In the maze of legal implications surrounding the Supreme Court’s two rulings on gay marriage Wednesday, at least one sentence rang especially clear. It was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy about the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

“DOMA,” said Kennedy, “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 others.”

That, the court decided in a 5-4 vote, is wrong.

With that sentence – and with a pair of rulings affirming lower-court decisions on same-sex marriage – the slow march toward equality continues.

The court, in its decisions, nodded to that momentum Wednesday. The justices could have moved the country abruptly forward or harshly backward on gay rights. They chose instead to largely get out of the way.

In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the justices avoided the merits of a lower-court ruling that said California voters couldn’t take away a previously granted right for gays to marry. But in deciding that proponents of California’s ban on same-sex marriage had no standing in the case, the court effectively allowed gay marriage to again be legal there.

In United States v. Windsor, the justices struck down a key part of DOMA by ruling that same-sex couples who are legally married should be provided equal treatment under federal law. But the justices also left intact same-sex marriage bans in 35 states, including North Carolina.

The DOMA ruling, however, has broad and heartening implications. In states where gay marriage is allowed, the federal government now cannot deny benefits to married homosexual couples. Those range from Social Security and income tax benefits – the case before the court involved a $360,000 estate tax bill for the surviving partner in a gay marriage – to homosexuals sponsoring a foreign national spouse for a green card.

Denying those benefits, as DOMA did, denied gays protection the Constitution provides. The justices ruled that the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause compels the federal government to treat same-sex couples the same as heterosexual couples in states that allow gay marriage.

It was a constitutionally sound ruling that’s consistent with the court’s other major decisions this week. On Monday, the justices affirmed the long-held precedent of affirmative action, but instructed a lower court to more thoroughly examine the constitutional muster of a University of Texas admissions policy. On Tuesday, the court acknowledged the necessity of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but urged Congress to ensure it was applied in a way that offered equal protection to all.

Now, with same-sex marriage, the justices have affirmed the principles of federalism and equal protection, while nodding to the states’ domain over marriage laws. For now, that is. The court left open the possibility of tackling the basic and broader question of whether there is a constitutional right to gay marriage. Said Chief Justice John Roberts: “The Court does not have before it, and the logic of its opinion does not decide, the distinct question whether the States ... may continue to utilize the traditional definition of marriage.”

That will come, we hope, on another day. But this day, with major victories and the powerful words behind them, was a good one.

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