The U.S. Supreme Court rejected federal discrimination against gay and lesbian couples in a landmark ruling Wednesday, recognizing that all marriages are deserving of dignity, equal benefits and legal protection. The ruling is a major victory for Americans who have been seeking equal treatment through a movement launched more than 40 years ago in response to violence, police harassment and endemic discrimination. It has often taken too long, but this nation always has expanded to embrace excluded groups, and this is another uplifting example.
As more states grant gays and lesbians the right to marry and the array of benefits that flow from that institution, Florida's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage will be an even larger barrier to the state's growth and economic development. The ruling serves as notice that Florida voters need to lift the ban rather than wait for a court to require it.
Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority ruling, joined by the court's four liberals, is a clear-eyed recognition of the legal, cultural and practical importance of marriage equality in states that have approved same-sex marriage. It lays the groundwork for an even broader acknowledgement of that right in years to come (which Justice Antonin Scalia groused about in an angry dissent). But the opinion in U.S. vs. Windsor is a careful one, cognizant of its place in the historical arc in which, until 2012, same-sex marriage supporters lost every popular vote. The ruling sits safely within American public opinion that supports same-sex marriage but wants the states to determine its legality.
By striking down the part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, federal law will now treat same-sex marriages the same as traditional marriages in the 13 states and District of Columbia where they are legal or about to be. State laws and constitutions that bar same-sex marriage, like those in Florida, will remain standing. Kennedy's ruling defers to states on value judgments over who may marry.
But as more states legalize same-sex marriage, and six have done so in the last year, Florida's continuing rejection of it will put the state at a competitive disadvantage. More than 200 companies weighed in on the DOMA case on the side of marriage equality. Major corporations such as Apple, Nike, Google and Citigroup said it is in their business interests that all their married employees be treated the same. Increasingly when Gov. Rick Scott tries to lure large companies to Florida, the state's policy of discrimination will be a major sticking point.
To read Kennedy's opinion is to appreciate the U.S. Constitution that breathes life into modern conceptions of right and wrong. Kennedy's decision is grounded in the liberty guarantees of the Constitution's due process clause, a rarely invoked right. He says Congress cannot pass laws that have as their prime function denying dignity to a class of people, in this case persons in lawful same-sex marriages. Kennedy rejects "second-class marriages," where one type of state-sanctioned marriage is federally recognized and another type is not, saying they demean couples and humiliate their children for no justifiable purpose. As practical matters, Kennedy identifies some of the myriad federal benefits that married gay and lesbian couples are denied under DOMA, including Social Security, housing, veterans' benefits and tax advantages.
The riots at Stonewall took place 44 years ago this month, sparking a demand that the law recognize the most basic rights of gays and lesbians to dignity and personhood. It is the same plea that African-Americans, ethnic minorities and women have made. Now, finally, the Supreme Court has answered them all.