On Friday, before its summer recess, the Supreme Court handed down its decision on two most historic and controversial cases of this term - Prop 8 and DOMA. Both these cases challenged the legal validity, at both the state and federal level, of the traditional definition of marriage. The ruling on these two monumental cases will have profound impact on the church, the family and society. Traditional marriage is now in the balance. Will it be found wanting by our society and the court?
The two cases, United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry, are each based on different views of which level of government has the right to define marriage. The challenge to DOMA (Windsor) was based on the claim that marriage is a matter for state rather than federal regulation, while the challenge to Proposition 8 (Hollingsworth) was a challenge to the claim that an individual state can define marriage as between one woman and one man.
United States v. Windsor was a direct challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The challenge was not whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, but rather whether Congress can treat married same-sex couples differently from married heterosexual couples in federal laws and programs.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is a federal law that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman for federal purposes. It restricts federal benefits to that union. The law passed Congress with overwhelming bi-partisan support and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 21, 1996. Section 3 of DOMA codifies the non-recognition of same-sex marriages for all federal purposes, including insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors' benefits, immigration, and the filing of joint tax returns.
In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that a section of DOMA was unconstitutional and violated equal liberty of persons protected by the Fifth Amendment. The equal protection violation, according to the Court, arose from Congress' decision denying rights to marriage provided by the state laws of New York. The majority opinion claimed that, "By history and tradition the definition and regulation of marriage has been treated as being within the authority and realm of the separate States.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the “history of DOMA’s enactment and its own text demonstrate that interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages, a dignity conferred by the States in the exercise of their sovereign power,” was “the essence” of DOMA. Its “avowed purpose,” he said, was to “impose” a “disadvantage,” “separate status” and “stigma” on those who enter into “lawful” marriages recognized by the states they live in.
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