Was the Supreme Court Right on Gay Marriage?

The Supreme Court rules on the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8.

Vin Testa awaits rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 outside the U.S. Supreme Court building Wednesday in Washington D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court Wednesday handed down decisions in two momentous cases on gay marriage. It found the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional because it denies equal liberty granted by the Fifth Amendment, and ruled that those defending California's Proposition 8 – which outlawed gay marriage in the Golden State – lacked standing to do so.

DOMA defines marriage as between a man and a woman and thusly denies federal benefits, like the ability to file joint tax returns and receive health benefits, to same-sex couples who are legally married. In Windsor v. U.S ., the Supreme Court ruled that the federal law violated "equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government":

Its unusual deviation from the tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with federal recognition of their marriages. This is strong evidence of a law having the purpose and effect of disapproval of a class recognized and protected by state law. DOMA's avowed purpose and practical effect are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

The 5-4 opinion was delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy, and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Atonin Scalia and Samuel Alito filed dissenting opinions, and were joined by Justice Clarence Thomas in various parts.

The Obama administration stopped defending the 1996 federal law, signed by President Bill Clinton, in 2011. Clinton himself announced in March that he supported overturning the law, saying he believes it to be "incompatible with our Constitution."

The Human Rights Campaign, an organization that advocates for equality for gay and lesbians, said Wednesday "the end of DOMA is a turning point for our movement, but there's a long road ahead."

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the Supreme Court Overturn the Defense of Marriage Act?]

The constitutionality of Proposition 8 was also challenged by gay marriage supporters. The Supreme Court's ruling Wednesday on Hollingsworth v. Perry likely means that the right for same-sex couples to marry in California will be granted because the state can't uphold the ban, but further litigation at the district court level is expected.

In another 5-4 decision, Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion and was joined by Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan. Justice Kennedy filed the dissenting opinion, which was joined by Thomas, Alito and Sotomayor.

Public opinion on gay marriage has gradually been shifting in favor of legalization, with prominent politicians from both parties voicing their support. It is currently legal in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

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