The Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. Under DOMA the federal government refused to recognize same-sex marriages that are legal in 12 states and the District of Columbia. This meant that same-sex couples could not receive federal benefits that were available to other legally married couples. The Court held that withholding federal benefits from gay couples that are available to straight couples deprives gay couples of the liberty guaranteed to them under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
So what does the DOMA ruling mean for North Carolina’s Amendment One, which recognizes only marriage between a man and a woman in North Carolina? In the short term, nothing. The DOMA decision only requires the federal government to recognize gay marriage in states that already legalized it. The Court decided not to make a sweeping decision regarding the right of homosexuals to marry nationwide, which means that decision is still left to the individual states to decide. Therefore, the decision does not have an effect on North Carolina Amendment One.
However, in the long term the DOMA case may provide another critical step in getting equal marriage rights for homosexuals. The Court just ruled that DOMA withholding federal benefits, which are available to straight couples, from gay couples deprives them of their liberty under the Due Process Clause. Accordingly, it would reasonably follow a state that does not allow a gay couple to marry, a right that is available to straight couples in every state, would also deprive gay couples of the liberty they are entitled to under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The Supreme Court has also ruled on a number of other cases that seems to lend themselves to allowing gay couples to get married. In Zablocki, the Court ruled that marriage is a fundamental right and the State cannot interfere directly and substantially with the right to marry unless there is a compelling government interest. If I have a fundamental right to get married, doesn’t it reasonably follow that I have a fundamental right to marry the person of my choice? If I have a fundamental right to marry the person of my choice, doesn’t a prohibition of gay marriage directly and substantially interfere with this fundamental right?
Though the DOMA decision will not have an immediate effect on Amendment One it could definitely be a stepping stone to the fight for equal rights for homosexual couples in the coming years. If and when the Supreme Court rules gay marriage is legal throughout the country Amendment One will have no authority and gay couples will be able to get married in North Carolina.