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.”
Also in his dissent, Scalia raised questions about the effect of the ruling in states, like Oklahoma, where same-sex marriages aren't recognized.
“Imagine a pair of women who marry in Albany and then move to Alabama, which does not ‘recognize as valid any marriage of parties of the same sex,'” Scalia wrote. “When the couple files their next federal tax return, may it be a joint one?
“Which State's law controls, for federal-law purposes: their State of celebration (which recognizes the marriage) or their State of domicile (which does not)? (Does the answer depend on whether they were just visiting in Albany)?”
Scott Hamilton, executive director of the Cimarron Alliance in Oklahoma City, whose same-sex marriage was performed in Connecticut, said Wednesday that he had been assured by attorneys the federal benefits would be available to couples despite their states' laws.
But the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said in a news release that “legally married same-sex couples (and widows or widowers) who have moved to — or now live in — a state that discriminates against their marriages, may face barriers to their federal marital protections. We will fight to ensure couples have access to vital benefits.”
Hamilton said there would be “lots of challenges we'll have to work through.”
President Barack Obama hailed the decision striking down the benefits section of DOMA and said he had directed Attorney General Eric Holder to review federal laws “to ensure this decision, including its implications for federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly.”
In an interview, Nickles, who now runs a lobbying company in Washington, said he was disappointed and frustrated in the court's decision.
Congress approved the law and has the power to repeal it, Nickles said, noting that Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House when President Barack Obama took office.
“I happen to be a believer in the Democratic process,” he said, adding that “five unelected justices” had usurped the will of Congress.
Nickles said he also took umbrage at language in the majority decision saying that lawmakers had set out to discriminate against people.
At the time the bill was passed, no states allowed same-sex marriage.
“The main pillar of the bill was that states didn't have to recognize gay marriages from other states,” Nickles said.
That section of the bill was not challenged and not addressed by the high court.