U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Defense of Marriage Act, Passes on Prop 8

Pamela Thiele and her partner of 12 years, Lauren Fortmiller, will attend the celebration on the Denver Capitol steps, Wednesday. In October they’ll also celebrate their marriage in their Methodist church. Photo courtesy of the couple.

The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was overturned and California’s Proposition 8 passed back to the state in two Supreme Court decisions issued today.

The Court decided not to rule on Proposition 8, the California state constitutional amendment, passed by voters in 2008, stating that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The Court asserted that the ballot supporters who defended the proposition in lower courts actually lacked the right to do so. The decision not to rule on the case puts the issue back in the state’s hands, likely allowing for legal gay marriages in California.

The U.S. Supreme Court also ruled in favor of Edith Windsor of New York, entitling her to a $363,000 refund in estate taxes, which she had to pay upon the death of her 42-year life partner, Thea Spyer. The Court decided that, “DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.” The ruling also allows legally married gay couples to access hundreds of legal and financial marriage benefits offered by the federal government.

Many Coloradans are celebrating and a rally will take place at 6:30 p.m. today on the west steps of the state Capitol.

“A historic moment has come with the court’s decision,” said Lauren Fortmiller of Denver, who has been with her partner Pamela Thiele for 12 years. “There are so many layers to this process, so many celebrations along the way.”

Others are not celebrating the rulings.

“Regardless of the outcome, Focus on the Family will do what we’ve always done; strengthen marriages and council people along the way,” said Carrie Earll, spokeswoman for Focus on the Family and its policy advocacy wing, CitizenLink.

Today’s rulings are especially big news for couples in the 12 states where gay marriage is legal. Although civil unions are now allowed in Colorado, the state’s Amendment 43 — approved by voters in 2006 — defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

“The reality is that gay and lesbian couples in Colorado and most other states still live without the full protection and dignity marriage would afford,” said Brad Clark of One Colorado. “While civil unions provide added safeguards and legal rights, they do fall short of equality. Couples lack social security and military benefits that are critical in caring for their families.”

Fortmiller and Thiele were initially against civil unions but ultimately put themselves first in line after they were legalized in Colorado. “We decided this is the process, this helps people understand the inequality,” said Thiele. “Today is …another step towards marriage, towards full rights.”

Legalization of gay marriage in Colorado means the repeal of Amendment 43, which could be happen in a number of ways, be it through a ballot initiative — requiring some 100,000 signatures before voting — or through the courts.

“The only way forward is to overturn that ban, whether through the courts or the ballot box.” said Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. “Our hope is that some day there’ll be a national decision overturning bans like 43, which I really see as a relic from the same era that produced DOMA in the first place.”

Given the Court’s historic rulings, many feel that the gay-rights movement is picking steam. Tip Ragan, a History professor at Colorado College who has been with his partner Dennis McEnnerney for 27 years, spoke about the vast degree of change he has seen over his lifetime.

“I was born in 1960, when it was still legal to lobotomize homosexuals. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 70’s that the APA announced homosexuality wasn’t a disease and it was just ten years ago that a case called Lawrence vs. Texas decriminalized sodomy in all fifty states. We’re talking about a continuing history of oppression that’s actually very recent.”

Also recent, according to Ragan, is the conception of marriage currently defended by opponents of gay marriage.

“The idea of marriage as an unchanging institution is misguided,” said Ragan. “Before the French revolution Protestant and Jewish marriages weren’t recognized by the State. This meant that for many, not being able to marry was, among other things, a huge, and familiar, political problem in terms of inheritance, of rights.”

Ragan asserted that many, if not all, societies have a history of citizens asking for the right to marry the person they love, be it across divisions of tribe, religion, family, race or sex.

Although Ragan acknowledges that the women’s and civil rights movements certainly have their own distinct histories, he says he takes inspiration from the progress those movements have made.

“I was born and spent my early childhood Georgia when there were still separate bathrooms and water fountains for African-Americans and white,” Ragan said. “The historical fact that the United States seems capable of expanding its concept of liberty and equality to include more and more people over time makes me feel very optimistic.”

Fortmiller and Thiele are also feeling optimistic about the future of the freedom to marry in Colorado.

“During the 7 years we’ve  lived here we’ve always worn pins and t-shirts,” said Thiele. “We’ve taken the chance of being openly gay all the time. I think our conversations checking out at Home Depot and the like have changed a lot. When we first came here people didn’t know what we were talking about: why civil unions? why marriage as a next step? But things have changed. People don’t want to live in a hate state. They have decide to listen.”

“I think it is more a possibility than we have ever felt before. The change is accelerating,” Fortmiller said.

“Six months ago I would have said no,” said Thiele. “We’re both in our mid 60’s and thought that door was closing. Now we hope it will happen in the next few years.”

In October, Fortmiller and Thiele will become the first gay couple to receive a matrimonial blessing in the Methodist Christ Church in downtown Denver. Theirs is also the first congregation in the nation to vote to bless the union of same-sex couples.

“The past couple months have been so thrilling,” Thiele said. “Suddenly I feel I have a legacy.”

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