The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decisions last week in two cases involving the rights of gays and lesbians to marry were celebrated by local advocates.
However, “it certainly did not affect the lives of Virginians,” said Brian Reach, president of the nonprofit Fairfax Pride. “It’s leaving three-quarters of the country without full marriage equality.”
The Supreme Court effectively overturned a ban on same-sex marriage in California by dismissing the case based on standing, and repealed a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, often referred to by the acronym DOMA.
The DOMA ruling states that the federal government must recognize legal same-sex marriages for those who live in places that have made same-sex marriage legal, said Deborah Hellman, a law professor at the University of Virginia.
There are a host of federal tax laws and legal rights that apply only to married couples.
Virginia is not one of the states affected by the ruling, as it enacted a voter-approved constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2006.
The ruling on DOMA does raise a slate of questions that will be pertinent to gay and lesbian Virginians, who do have the option of legally tying the knot next door in Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Will the federal government still recognize those marriages? Will people have to change their tax status if they move to Virginia from a state where they were legally married? “Those are unresolved questions,” Hellman said.
Virginia will still not be required to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, Hellman noted, because the Supreme Court did not strike down the portion of DOMA that leaves those decisions up to the states.
“It was obvious that the Supreme Court was erring on the side of states’ rights,” Reach said.
For politically active members of the LGBT community like himself, Reach said the ruling will provide additional motivation to make changes at the state level, starting with this fall’s election for governor and other state offices.
“It’s just a matter of time before the political landscape reflects our opinion,” he said, noting that some recent surveys suggest that a majority of Virginians now support same-sex marriage.
Hellman also said she believes the Supreme Court’s decision means more than its limited tangible effects.
“I think Supreme Court cases have an expressive value, as well as a concrete effect,” Hellman said. Repeating words like “dignity,” “status” and “recognition” in the opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy was saying that in order to treat LGBT people with dignity, they must receive equal treatment under the law.
“That’s not what the case decided, but that is its values,” Hellman said.