Why the breadth of the DOMA ruling matters

Updated
 

It will take some time to digest the significance of the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, but as msnbc’s Adam Serwer noted, the “likely consequences for same-sex couples who until now have been denied legal recognition by the federal government are difficult to overstate.”

Families headed by married same-sex couples will now be recognized by the federal government as families. Servicemembers fighting for their country in far off lands will not have to worry about their spouses being denied benefits. The same-sex spouses of Americans who are not U.S. citizens will not be denied green cards on the basis that their marriages don’t count.

But there was something that NBC News’ Pete Williams said this morning that’s also worth keeping in mind. For those who can’t watch clips online:

“The interesting thing here is that the court has said that DOMA is unconstitutional as a matter of equal protection – meaning that it’s discriminatory. Now, the importance of that is, if the Supreme Court had struck it down on a narrower basis – by saying for example that the federal government doesn’t have the power to determine what a marriage is, that’s a matter for the states – that would have been a very narrow ruling.

“This is a very broad ruling. If the Supreme Court is saying here that the federal government can’t make distinctions between same-sex and opposite-sex couples in terms of what marriages the federal government will recognize, then this is an opinion that can be used by proponents of same-sex marriage to attack laws in other states.”

It can and will be used exactly that way, and for marriage-equality supporters, it suggests the DOMA ruling in U.S. v. Windsor is not only a breakthrough victory today, but it will continue to offer opportunities for further victories fairly soon.

Note, the Supreme Court had some options, even once the majority agreed to strike DOMA down. In fact, while the outcome was widely expected, many predicted a narrow ruling – the justices would point to federalists principles, and say that if a marriage is legal at the state level, the federal government will recognize it, too.

But the majority went considerably further than this, saying that DOMA didn’t just violate principles related to states’ rights, but also that the law was discriminatory.

There are legal scholars who can speak to this in more detail, but it appears that every state with anti-gay laws has a real problem on its hands. Windsor didn’t establish marriage equality in all 50 states, but it did hand a meaningful legal precedent to everyone challenging discriminatory state laws.

Anti-gay activists seemed apoplectic this morning, and I’m afraid I have some bad news for them: for the right, it won’t get better.

Marriage Equality, Supreme Court and DOMA

Why the breadth of the DOMA ruling matters

Updated