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SCOTUS roundup: Rulings on DOMA and Prop 8

posted by Claire Ma and Dolores Morgan Trujillo

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 on Wednesday that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, is unconstitutional. The Court also declined to rule on Proposition 8, a California case that banned same-sex marriage, on technical grounds, deciding that the case was improperly before the Court. The 5-4 decision striking down the Federal DOMA law occurred arguably along ideological lines, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joining the four liberal leaning justices and writing the majority opinion. By repealing DOMA ,the federal government may immediately begin providing federal benefits to same-sex couples married in states where their union is legal. The following roundup presents a range of reactions from both sides, with a focus on the religious aspects that have long influenced this debate.

In a national survey conducted last month by the Pew Research Center, religious beliefs are cited as the major factor in opposition to same-sex marriage; many religious institutions and leaders have participated in the public debate. For example, members of The Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS), or the Mormon Church, were behind much of the campaigning and funding for the California Proposition 8 ballot initiative. However, in recent years, the LDS Church and its members have softened their opposition to homosexuality and now allows celibate gay members to hold positions of leadership within the Church. Other religious institutions have maintained support for the gay rights movement, including The First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego and its church member Eric Isaacson. Isaacson has written amicus curiae briefs in conjunction with the Unitarian Universalist Church in support of same-sex marriages, including for the case involving Prop 8 which was dismissed by the Court today. Although the ruling on DOMA does not make same-sex marriage legal, it does arguably further strengthen the legal standing of same-sex marriage in some areas of U.S. law, which many religious organizations, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have strongly opposed.

The initial response to the SCOTUS ruling on DOMA has been diverse and passionate. Many socially conservative groups have cried out against the SCOTUS ruling on DOMA and the dismissal of California’s Prop 8 case, fearing that it marks a dangerous precedent for marriage and family values. At the crux of many of these arguments is the tension between the Court’s jurisdiction and the “law” of God. Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, described the Court’s rulings as a “tragic day for marriage and our nation” and released a lengthy statement strongly disapproving of the Court’s decision. The Coalition of African-American Pastors condemned the ruling, claiming it will only further erode African-American communities. Multiple religious groups have also issued statements in support of the ruling, including the group Muslims for Progressive Values, who stated that they were “thrilled” with the ruling. Leaders from the United Church of Christ hailed the ruling as well, stating that it was a great step towards “equality and justice” and that the ruling “means a great deal to so many of our UCC members and their relationships.” While some religious opponents of the DOMA decision have based their arguments in theology and religious traditions, others are taking a more technical and legal approach. David Mills, Executive Editor of The Institute of Religion and Public Life’s journal First Things, cites Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion that the Court overstepped its jurisdictional boundaries in making today’s decision. More statements from religious leaders both in support and opposition of DOMA can be found herehere, as well as various tweets from religious leaders.

Commentators are dissecting today’s ruling, as it spells interesting implications for the gay rights movement as well as for the extent and possible limitations of religious freedom. In his official statement, President Barack Obama celebrated the court’s ruling against DOMA, which he described as “discrimination enshrined in law.” However, in recognizing the concerns from religious voices in this debate, Obama also expressed his commitment to religious freedom and the limitations of the decision, stating that, “How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions.” Some have claimed that the defeat of DOMA represents persecution, while other commentators have analyzed what the decision may mean for the future of the Catholic Church.

For further reading on religious perspectives of this historic ruling, please see this article from The Washington Post and Jaweed Kaleem’s article in The Huffington Post, as well as general, ongoing analysis from The New York Times.

The 77-page Supreme Court decision, United States v. Windsor, can be found here.

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