Amid Mass. rulings on the freedom to marry, Proposition 8 case could have larger effect

Posted by Sandhya Somashekhar on washingtonpost.com:

"The battle over the freedom to marry intensified this week after a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled unconstitutional the 1996 law that forbids the federal government to recognize marriages of same-sex couples, a decision that could have repercussions in the District and the five states that allow gays and lesbians to marry.

"Gay rights groups celebrated the decision, hailing it as a small but important step in the effort to secure equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Opponents immediately sounded the alarm, accusing the Obama administration of not vigorously defending existing law and faulting U.S. District Judge Joseph L. Tauro in Boston for taking an activist stance in his rulings on two cases Thursday.

"As both sides await news of a likely appeal that could eventually lead to the Supreme Court, they are keeping an eye on California. A federal judge in San Francisco is expected to rule any day on whether voters in that state were within their rights when they supported a 2008 ballot initiative that banned marriage equality. That decision could have major reverberations around the country and also end up before the nation's highest court.

... "The freedom to marry is legal in five states, including Massachusetts, and in the District. However, married same-sex couples are disqualified from receiving marriage-based federal benefits under the 1996 [so-called] Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which was the subject of Tauro's decision.

"Evan Wolfson, director of the gay advocacy group Freedom to Marry, called the law 'a radical blot on the American constitution' because it singles out a particular group for discrimination, and he praised Tauro's finding that the law violated the equal rights of gay couples. Opponents of the freedom to marry said the federal law was a necessary backstop to prevent states from overstepping their bounds and undermining traditional notions of marriage.

... "'There is a sense in which this case [Massachusetts] is very significant, and there is a way in which it is a tiny step,' said Gary Buseck, legal director for GLAD. 'If the . . . case goes all the way to the United States Supreme Court and we get as broad a ruling as we could possibly get, it will not bring marriage equality to the country.'

"More significant, he and others say, could be the outcome of the California case. There, U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker is being asked to decide whether voters violated the U.S. Constitution by passing Proposition 8, a referendum measure two years ago that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

"Supporters of marriage equality say the outcome of that case [California] could be as significant from a civil rights perspective as Loving v. Virginia, the case that invalidated that state's ban on interracial marriage."

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