Charleston couple Truman Smith and Doug Warner broke out a bottle of champagne after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in support of gay marriage.
Nearly three years ago, they were present in Washington when President Obama signed the military “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, and it was time to celebrate again.
“To me, it feels a lot the same way,” Warner said.
In what advocates are calling a landmark case for gay equality, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled the federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. The justices also cleared the way for same-sex couples to soon marry in California, with weddings possibly becoming reality by next month.
In a narrow 5-4 decision, the court said the federal act, which denies legally married gay Americans a range of tax, health and pension benefits that otherwise are available to married couples, is unconstitutional. They called it deprivation of equal liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment.
The federal statute, the court said, created a class “treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others.”
In short, the ruling says that same-sex couples who are legally married will be entitled to equal treatment under federal law in areas such as income taxes and Social Security benefits.
Representatives of Charleston’s gay community immediately latched onto the outcome, hoping it would be the first of many reforms eventually embraced by the 38 states that currently don’t recognize gay marriage.
“This is a day I never thought I would see in my lifetime when I was a young woman struggling with my relationship orientation,” said Linda Ketner of Charleston, who made history as the state’s first openly gay candidate to seek federal office when she ran for the 1st Congressional District in 2008.
“In the eyes of the federal government, I’m now an equal citizen of the country I love and that’s been an undeveloped promise of our Constitution, until today,” she added.
But while Ketner was happy about the ruling, she said the fractured nature of only some states recognizing gay rights and marriage is going to remain troublesome.
For instance, she expects the 12 states that do recognize gay marriage will see an influx of gay residents who can take advantage of equal marriage rights, including on such matters as survivorship and marital assets not being unfairly taxed. She predicted a financial and intellectual drain.
Other Charleston gay leaders also took issue with the legal uniformity on gay marriage nationwide remaining incomplete.
“The important thing they (the justices) recognized was that DOMA was a discriminatory action,” said Warren Redman-Gress, executive director of the Charleston Alliance for Full Acceptance. “And while it helps in places where marriage is legally recognized, it leaves a lot of people who live in states that don’t recognize marriage still out in the cold.”
Critics, however, called it the wrong interpretation of humankind.
“In spite of today’s Supreme Court decision, the church community will continue to stand together in promoting and defending marriage — the union between one man and one woman for life,” said Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone of the Diocese of Charleston.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., added that he believed in the traditional definition of marriage and would continue to defend South Carolina’s legal interpretation.
“One key point: Today’s Supreme Court ruling will not change South Carolina law and I will continue to fight for and defend the traditional definition of marriage,” he said.
In South Carolina, same-sex marriage is banned under a constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2006. It declares that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only lawful domestic union that shall be valid or recognized.”
How the Supreme Court decision on DOMA will affect Palmetto State same-sex couples is a complex issue, said Susan Dunn, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
“To a certain extent we are not sure. It’s likely to be somewhat of a mess,” Dunn said.
She described a hypothetical situation in which a single-gender couple married legally in one of the New England states decides to retire here and buy a home. One of them dies in South Carolina, where gay marriage is illegal, and the situation goes to Probate Court.
“We don’t know what is going to happen there,” she said. She anticipated such issues will be tested in the state courts.
The situation is more clear-cut in states where same-sex marriage is recognized, she said.
“If the state says it’s legal, then the federal government has to recognize that,” Dunn said.
That translates to federal tax benefits and recognition of the marriage by the Social Security Administration, she said.
The Palmetto State has 7,214 same-sex couples, or four couples per 1,000 households. The numbers include 4,054 female same-sex couples and 3,160 male single-gender couples, according to a report by the Williams Institute based on 2010 Census data. The Williams Institute is a think tank at UCLA Law that focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.
Charleston County leads the state with 801 same-sex couples followed by Richland County with 779 couples of the same gender and Greenville County with 656. Berkeley County has an estimated 300 same-sex couples and Dorchester County 160, the report says.
Redman-Gress said the DOMA ruling was an obvious victory in parts of the country but expressed disappointment that the court was so closely divided. Another avenue that appears to be cleared in the ruling covers the rights of international couples and immigration, he said.
DOMA was passed at a time when it appeared Hawaii would legalize gay marriage. Since then, many states have instituted their own bans on gay marriage, while a dozen states and the District of Columbia have approved the practice, led by Massachusetts in 2004.
The Supreme Court has cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California by holding that defenders of California’s gay marriage ban did not have the right to appeal lower court rulings striking down the ban.
The court’s 5-4 vote Wednesday regarding the California ban leaves in place the initial trial court declaration that the ban is unconstitutional. California officials probably will rely on that ruling to allow the resumption of same-sex unions in about a month’s time.
The high court itself said nothing about the validity of gay marriage bans in California and roughly three dozen other states.
The DOMA opinion was not along ideological lines. It was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by the four liberal Justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Part of the decision also covers immigration issues, including those surrounding Charleston lesbian couple Mascha Jansen op de Haar and Els Sipkes.
Sipkes is a naturalized U.S. citizen, while op de Haar is still legally a citizen of the Netherlands. The ruling means as a U.S. citizen, Sipkes can sponsor Mascha for a green card, something that has been unavailable to couples in same-sex marriages. “We are ecstatic about the Supreme Court rulings today,” Sipkes said, “But also realize there is still a long way to go before we are recognized as being truly equal, and are granted the same rights, privileges and liberties given to all other U.S. citizens.”
Natalie Caula and Glenn Smith contributed to this report.