Who can marry whom is not the government’s business. In fact, it’s no one’s business other than the two people who are marrying.
No matter what color the members of a couple may be, no matter how tall or short they are, no matter what nationality they are, what religion, or what sex they are — a couple’s decision to marry is strictly their own.
Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court has said governments must accept this fact.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a 1996 law denying federal benefits to legally married, same-sex couples. On the same day, the court ruled on a separate California case and cleared the way for California to legalize same-sex marriage.
In effect, the rulings expand gay rights. The decisions mean real things to real people, and they come out of real questions of fairness.
The first ruling struck down the federal law known as DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples.
Those benefits include Social Security for surviving spouses, joint tax filings, official contact when a military spouse is killed in the line of duty, green-card status and family health insurance.
The second decision dismissed California’s Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage, meaning gay marriage can resume there. Though narrowly focused on California, the ruling sets the stage for other states to know that banning gay marriage will mean fruitless and expensive court battles that will waste taxpayer money.
At this time, only 12 states have made same-sex marriage legal, and at least 82,500 gay couples have married since Massachusetts became the first state to accept gay marriage in 2004.
In striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote: “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”
He continued: “By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
Put another way, the law was meant only to demean gay couples.
In the court’s 5-4 decision, dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia called the rule “jaw-dropping.”
“In the majority’s telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us,” Justice Scalia wrote in his dissent. “The truth is more complicated.”
Yes, bigotry usually is complicated.
But Wednesday’s sea-change rulings also reflect the shift in public opinion about gay rights. A decade ago in 2003, only 31 percent of the public said they approved of gay marriage. This year, 55 percent gave gay marriage a nod.
Of course, there still will be culture wars, and there are a slew of state and federal rules to sort out. For instance, IRS and the Social Security Administration look to the state where a gay couple lives, not where they married, to determine benefit rights. That may spell red-tape confusion and delay in the 38 states where gay marriage has not been legalized. That geography would include all southern states.
Nonetheless, these rulings are landmark decisions.
Love has triumphed over bigotry. No one should care who marries whom — only that they love and honor each other.
Any other judgments are not ours to make.