Saving the biggest news of its term for last, the U.S. Supreme Court dramatically expanded rights for same-sex couples while seemingly putting voting rights at risk.
Though they stopped short of declaring there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, Wednesday’s decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 will stand together as a milestone in gay rights. They mean that same-sex married couples are entitled to federal benefits, and presumably that gay marriages will resume in populous California as they continue in 12 other states and the District of Columbia. So 30 percent of Americans now live in places where same-sex marriage is lawful and will have access to Social Security and military spousal benefits, federally protected family and medical leave, marital tax benefits and the like.
The 5-4 decisions found the court about as split as Americans, 51 percent of whom support same-sex marriage. Because the rulings don’t affect state bans, such as the constitutional amendment that Kansans approved in 2005, gay couples in Kansas may have to view these advances for marriage equality from a distance for now. (It’s unclear whether couples married in other states would be entitled to rights while living in Kansas.) And Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, already said Wednesday that he plans to introduce a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, complaining that “five activist justices” have “allowed the desires of adults to trump the needs of children.”
But the rulings surely invite other legal challenges to prohibitions of gay marriage, including in Kansas. And they further signal that legal recognition of same-sex marriage is inevitable – just as 72 percent of Americans believe it to be.
“In the midst of my grief I realized that the federal government was treating us as strangers, and it meant paying a humongous estate tax,” Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the DOMA challenge, has said about why she filed suit after the death of her partner of 40 years and spouse of two years. Such spouses are strangers no more, at least in the eyes of federal law.
Earlier in the week, the high court sent mixed messages on the need to protect minority rights in voting and university admissions. While the court made it possible for universities to continue to use racial preferences to achieve racial diversity in enrollment, it also freed certain states from having the Justice Department approve changes in their voting practices. That might suggest voting discrimination is a thing of the past, yet gerrymandering continues and states (including Kansas) are newly enacting voter-ID and proof-of-citizenship laws that have the effect of limiting voter participation and disproportionately disenfranchising minorities.
Because the dysfunctional Congress is unlikely to do anything to shore up the voting rights of minorities, that job will fall to the Justice Department and the courts.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman