Not so fast: Today’s decisions aren’t as great as you think

by Madhu Ramankutty

America’s millennials are thrilled. Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with tweets of pride: “DOMA DOWN!” and “Overjoyed!” Instagram is overflowing with photos of sepia-colored rainbows and #SCOTUSpolice. Today’s overwhelming reaction to the Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 is a sign that my generation—or at least my peer group—supports marriage equality and gay rights. It is a sign that we take discrimination very seriously.

But I think that we should take today’s decisions with a grain of salt—because today’s rulings, while a crucial step in the direction towards marriage equality, have not done as much as our social networks would have us believe.

Hollingsworth v. Perry dealt with Proposition 8—the California amendment that prohibited gay marriage following a California Supreme Court decision that mandated it. However, today, the Supreme Court ruled that the sponsors of that proposition didn’t have the “standing” to appeal because they weren’t the California state government (i.e. the court should have never have decided to hear the case in the first place, a mistake they only now realize). What does this mean? It means that same-sex marriage isn’t banned in California. That’s it. It doesn’t extend the right to a same-sex marriage in other states, or make any other sweeping claims about the status of same-sex couples in America.

United States v. Windsor was the case about the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 law that defined marriage as the union between one man and one woman for the purpose of federal law. Today, in a 5-4 decision (Kennedy as the swing vote between the conservative and liberal branches of the court and the opinion-writer as well), SCOTUS invalidated the constitutionality of DOMA on equal liberty and 5th amendment grounds—not states’ rights. But what does this mean? Well, it means that only legally recognized same-sex couples (that is, same-sex couples who get married in states where it has been voted on and approved) are now eligible to receive federal benefits. But as Justice Roberts made so clear when reading his dissent, this opinion doesn’t create any broader right to marriage between same-sex couples. He wrote, “We may in the future have to resolve challenges to state marriage definitions affecting same-sex couples. That issue, however, is not before us in this case.”

So yes, today’s decisions are worthy of pride and joy. But it is also important to realize that there are many more obstacles ahead of us before full equality is achieved.

Also—did anyone notice how no one is talking about the Voting Rights Act case anymore? Nicely played, SCOTUS.

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