Two major decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in the final week of its term left deep divisions among citizens across the country as the court ruled on the neuralgic issues of voting rights and same-sex marriage. On two consecutive days the court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act and overturned the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. Both decisions were decided by a margin of 5 to 4; both will have profound effects on the exercise of federal power in the years to come.
On June 25 the court overturned the part of the Voting Rights Act that was used to determine which states had to comply with the law’s protections for minority voters. On June 26 the court ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, defining marriage as between one man and one woman, is unconstitutional under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. In a separate case decided the same day, the court sent back to lower courts a case involving California’s Proposition 8, the voter-approved initiative that bars same-sex marriage. The apparent result is that same-sex marriage will again be legal in California.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement shortly after the court’s rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8.
“Today is a tragic day for marriage and our nation,” said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the bishops’ conference, and Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, chair of the bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. “The Supreme Court has dealt a profound injustice to the American people by striking down in part the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The Court got it wrong. The federal government ought to respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so.”
An editorial on The Jesuit Post Web site sought to address the contrast between the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage and the jubilant responses among many to the court’s decisions. “We find ourselves in a very profound tension,” the editors wrote. “We understand why so many are rejoicing. At the same time, we recognize the beauty of the Church’s understanding of the natural purposes of marriage. And we struggle because we do not know how to hold these two things together. Neither of these are maliciously motivated; neither deserves to be vilified by the other side.”
The bishops did not release a statement on the voting rights decision, but the conference has been a strong supporter of the Voting Rights Act since it was first adopted in 1965. “The Catholic bishops are proud of our past leadership role in securing civil rights, including the right to vote,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio wrote to Congressional leaders in 2006, urging them to renew the act. “Our Conference has continually emphasized the importance of voting and the right and responsibility of each citizen to vote, and has encouraged dioceses, parishes and other Catholic institutions to participate in non-partisan voting registration efforts.”
Assessing the Impact
On the issue of same-sex marriage, neither decision by the court will have the effect of requiring states to honor same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. But by overturning DOMA, the federal government will have to change how it treats same-sex marriages for purposes ranging from Social Security benefits to taxation, immigration and benefits for military spouses. The June 26 ruling did not address whether a political jurisdiction is required to recognize a same-sex marriage from another jurisdiction.
DOMA had the support of the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and, at first, of President Barack Obama. But in 2011, the Justice Department announced that the attorney general had determined that Section 3 of the law is unconstitutional as applied to legally married same-sex spouses. The administration said federal agencies should continue to enforce the law, but that the government would no longer defend it in court.
In his decision for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy criticized DOMA as having “the avowed purpose and practical effect...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.” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a dissent, arguing that the court should not have jurisdiction to rule in the case and that DOMA was constitutional.
Chief Justice Roberts joined the majority in Shelby County v. Holder: “Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional; its formula can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to pre-clearance,” a process that has been used since the law was first enacted in 1965 to ensure polling places are readily accessible to minority voters. The provisions apply in nine entire states and individual jurisdictions in six other states with a history of discrimination. They have had to obtain advance federal approval of any changes to voting laws or procedures.
Voters and the Court
In 32 states, constitutional amendments ban same-sex marriage, while 12 states and the District of Columbia recognize such marriages. Another eight states recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships, with some having overlapping bans on same-sex marriage.
In an interview shortly after the ruling, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone took issue with the court’s decision on Proposition 8. The archbishop noted that seven million voters in California voted for the proposition and “many of them invested a lot of hard work and a lot of time and lots and lots of money against seemingly insurmountable odds.”
When the state “refused to defend the law,” he said, its proponents hired legal counsel, raised money and invested hard work to defend it. “Now they’re being told that those elected officials charged with the duty of defending the laws of the state can refuse to do their duty simply because they disagree with the law and disenfranchise seven million voters,” he said.
The archbishop pointed out that he has said all along that no matter how the court ruled, “our work remains unchanged. We need to catechize our people about marriage.” -- July 1, 2013