Marriage ruling raises questions
Two U.S. Supreme Court decisions Wednesday struck a major blow in favor of gay marriage rights, but exactly what they will mean for same-sex couples in Colorado still is unknown.
In separate 5-4 decisions, the high court struck down a key provision in the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, and reversed lower court opinions that proponents of California’s ban on gay marriage had the right to sue in federal court, leaving standing that state’s right for same-sex couples there to marry.
As a result of the first opinion, President Barack Obama ordered his Cabinet to review all federal laws to ensure that married same-sex couples in those states that allow it have the same access to federal benefits as heterosexual couples.
But what the second opinion means for Colorado’s nearly identical constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman is unclear.
Attorney General John Suthers said in a statement that his office had joined in the California case seeking clarification of what a lower federal court’s ruling that struck down California’s Proposition 8 meant for states like Colorado with nearly identical laws effectively barring gay marriage.
He didn’t get that clarity.
“We joined an amicus brief in the Proposition 8 case seeking clarity about the ability of states to adopt traditional definitions of marriage as Colorado’s voters did in 2006,” Suthers said. “The Supreme Court did not provide such clarity (Wednesday). We will continue to analyze the opinions and will be prepared to defend Colorado statues and constitutional provisions in the future.”
In 2006, Colorado voters approved 55 percent to 45 percent Amendment 43, which declared marriage as being between one man and one woman. That same year, voters rejected Referendum I, which would have created domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. It failed 52 percent to 48 percent.
Since then, however, polls show Coloradans’ attitudes toward gay marriage have changed, leading the Colorado Legislature just this year to approve a civil unions law.
While that new law gives same-sex couples much of the same legal rights as married couples, it only applies to state rights, said Brad Clark, president of One Colorado, a leading gay and lesbian group in the state.
Striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act opens the door to providing gay couples equal access to the same federal benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy, such as Social Security survivor benefits, immigration and filing joint tax returns, he said.
But while Clark hailed the ruling as an important step forward, he said unless same-sex couples actually can marry in Colorado, they may still be barred from enjoying the same federal benefits as heterosexuals.
“The thing is that gay and lesbian couples cannot get married in Colorado,” Clark said. “While civil unions provide them with some safeguards and some responsibilities, they still fall short of full protection. Without marriage at a better level, they still lack critical protections like Social Security and military benefits.”
In 2011, Obama said he considered the act to be unconstitutional and refused to defend it in court. Still, he said the federal government would continue to adhere to that law, at least until now.
On Wednesday, Obama hailed the court opinion, calling the act “discrimination enshrined in law.”
As a result, he directed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to work with all agencies to review federal statutes to ensure that they are realigned to comply with the opinion.
With California now allowing gay marriage, it joins 12 other states to do so. Six others, including Colorado, offer civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Meanwhile, state officials and gay-rights groups are still reviewing their options for Colorado.
House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, a Denver Democrat and the state’s first openly gay speaker, said he’s pleased federal benefits will now be made available to same-sex couples, but was less certain what, if anything, will happen with the state’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage here.
He has often said that getting same-sex marriage into state law is a long-range goal, but he’s not sure yet how this will further that effort, hinting that either a legal challenge of that law or a constitutional amendment overturning it may soon be in the state’s future.
“This doesn’t change our state, but it does mean that we have to continue to fight for full marriage equality because only states that recognize full equality will have the federal benefits,” Ferrandino said. “But at least now, this separate-but-equal argument in Colorado definitely has issues.”