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Supreme Court Strikes Down Defense Of Marriage Act


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. The U.S. Supreme Court this hour has delivered a historic ruling, striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA, the law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman, the court said is unconstitutional. Yet in a second gay marriage case, the high court declined to rule on California's Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage. For more, we have NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving and NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Good morning to both of you.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And, Carrie, let's start with DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. What exactly did the court say in its majority?

JOHNSON: Sure. So in a 5 to 4 ruling led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who sided with the more liberal-leaning justices in this case, he said that part of the 1996 DOMA law that defined marriage as between one man and one woman was unconstitutional. And this was a real victory for people in states that recognize gay marriage because, Renee, Justice Kennedy said that this federal law or this part of the federal law was a denial of their rights to equal protection under the law, a very, very strong, very solid holding.

He said that the federal government essentially deemed this class of people unworthy, and that marriage conferred all sorts of benefits, practical and otherwise, as well as some kind of moral status, and that the federal government didn't have a right to take away or deprive people of those liberties.

MONTAGNE: And I think it's fair to say that this ruling reflects a greater social change that's - it's gone rather rapidly in the - you know, at large. But, Ron, what - there was a lengthy dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia. Tell us about that.

ELVING: Anthony - Antonin Scalia still sees this as an overreach by the court, because he sees this as the court reading something into the Constitution that the Constitution didn't necessarily intend, and also sees that the Congress had irrational basis for passing what it passed, and that the court should not assume that the basis on which the Congress acted was irrational, or that it had the bad intent that's imputed by the majority opinion.

MONTAGNE: But, in effect, the majority opinion is what? That states can pass gay marriage laws now with impunity. They're constitutional.

ELVING: The court is not really addressing whether or not the states should do that. The court is only saying that where states have chosen to do that on their own, the federal government should not be coming in and telling them that those marriages are not equal in the eyes of the federal law.

MONTAGNE: Let's move on, Carrie, to Proposition 8. The court declined to rule on that proposition. First, briefly, what - tell us what it is, and then what this ruling means.

JOHNSON: Proposition 8 was a referendum in California that essentially banned the recognition of same-sex marriage in that state. Lower courts said that that was unconstitutional. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. But today, the U.S. Supreme Court - in another 5 to 4 ruling, led this time by Chief Justice John Roberts - said there really was no dispute the Supreme Court could hear here. And Renee, the reason for that is very simple, namely that California's governor and attorney general, both Democrats, declined to defend Proposition 8.

And in the absence of them defending Proposition 8 as it moved up through the courts, Chief Justice Roberts, joined by a couple of the more liberal justices, said this matter didn't belong in the Supreme Court at all, and it sent the case back to the 9th Circuit Appeals Court. The effect of this, Renee, is that same-sex marriage will, again, be legal in California, but it's not a broad holding affecting a whole bunch of other states.

MONTAGNE: Well, Ron, just briefly, what is the difference between these two rulings? Where's the gap?

ELVING: The gap is that the Proposition 8 decision really only applies to California, whereas the Defense of Marriage Act applies all across the country, wherever gay marriages have been approved by the states.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Ron Elving and Carrie Johnson on the news that the Supreme Court has a historic ruling today, striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. Thank you both very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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