WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court decisions handed down Wednesday on gay marriage may have little practical effect in Oklahoma, where state law bars gay couples from being wed and prohibits the recognition of gay marriages performed in other states.
“The court's decisions confirmed that it is up to the states to decide how to define marriage, not the federal government,” Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said after the high court's decisions.
“As a result, Oklahoma's constitutional provision that defines marriage in Oklahoma as between a man and a woman remains valid.”
The Oklahoma law, approved by voters in 2004, is being challenged in federal court in Tulsa.
Questions remained Wednesday about whether gay couples who were married in another state and live in Oklahoma will be entitled to the federal benefits that were denied under the Defense of Marriage Act.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of DOMA, a federal law that was approved overwhelmingly by Congress in 1996 and signed by then-President Bill Clinton. The bill was authored by two former Oklahoma Republican lawmakers — Sen. Don Nickles and Rep. Steve Largent.
That law defined marriage as between a man and a woman for the purposes of U.S. law — affecting more than 1,000 federal provisions ranging from tax returns to Social Security and veterans benefits. It also gave states the authority not to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
The high court sidestepped the broad question on Wednesday of whether state bans on gay marriage are valid under the U.S. Constitution.
The court ruled that a case from California on that question should have been brought by state officials, rather than proponents of a state question that banned gay marriage. The court's ruling had the effect of upholding a lower court's decision to strike down the California ban.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia currently allow gay marriage.
The DOMA case was brought by a widow from New York who had to pay more than $300,000 in estate taxes on the inheritance from her spouse because the federal government didn't recognize the same-sex marriage.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in a decision joined by the court's four liberals, said the denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples violated the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause.
“DOMA's principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency,” Kennedy's opinion states.
“Responsibilities, as well as rights, enhance the dignity and integrity of the person. And DOMA contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not other couples, of both rights and responsibilities.”
In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia defended Congress' right to define marriage in federal law and wrote that “to defend traditional marriage is not to condemn, demean, or humiliate those who would prefer other arrangements, any more than to defend the Constitution of the United States is to condemn, demean, or humiliate other constitutions.”