WASHINGTON (AP) — Concluding two days of intense debate, the Supreme Court signaled Wednesday that it could give a boost to same-sex marriage by striking down the federal law that denies legally married gay spouses a wide range of benefits offered to other couples.
As the court wrapped up its remarkable arguments over gay marriage in America, a majority of the justices indicated that they will invalidate part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act — if they can get past procedural problems similar to those that appeared to mark Tuesday's case over California's ban on same-sex marriage.
Since the federal law was enacted in 1996, nine states and the District of Columbia have made it legal for gays and lesbians to marry. Same-sex unions also were legal in California for nearly five months in 2008 before the Proposition 8 ban.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the decisive vote in close cases, joined the four more-liberal justices in raising questions Wednesday about a provision that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman for purposes of federal law.
It affects more than 1,100 statutes in which marital status is relevant, dealing with tax breaks for married couples, Social Security survivor benefits and, for federal employees, health insurance and leave to care for spouses.
Kennedy said the Defense of Marriage Act appears to intrude on the power of states that have chosen to recognize same-sex marriages. When so many federal statutes are affected, “which in our society means that the federal government is intertwined with the citizens' day-to-day life, you are at real risk of running in conflict with what has always been thought to be the essence of the state police power, which is to regulate marriage, divorce, custody,” Kennedy said.
Other justices said the law creates what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called two classes of marriage, full and “skim-milk marriage.”
Paul Clement, representing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which has taken up defense of the law, argued that the federal government was entitled to use a uniform definition of marriage across the nation.
Clement said the government does not want military families “to resist transfer from West Point to Fort Sill because they're going to lose their benefits.” The U.S. Military Academy at West Point is in New York, where same-sex marriage is legal, and Fort Sill is in Oklahoma, where gay marriages are not legal.
Opposing Clement was the administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, Donald Verrilli, who said the provision of DOMA at issue, Section 3, impermissibly discriminates against gay people.
“I think it's time for the court to recognize that this discrimination, excluding lawfully married gay and lesbian couples from federal benefits, cannot be reconciled with our fundamental commitment to equal treatment under law,” Verrilli said.
The DOMA argument followed Tuesday's case over California's ban on same-sex marriage, a case in which the justices indicated that they might avoid a major national ruling on whether America's gays and lesbians have a right to marry. Even without a significant ruling, the court appeared headed for a resolution that would mean the resumption of same-sex weddings in California.
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The following interactive explores the issue of gay marriage by state and Americans' changing views of same-sex couples.