U.S. Supreme Court rules Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional, declines to rule on Proposition 8

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision June 26 that Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional based on the Fifth Amendment. This ruling affects more than 1,000 federal laws. Following this decision, the Supreme Court also declined to rule on California’s Proposition 8.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, chair of the U.S. bishops' Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, called it a "tragic day for marriage and our nation."

A portion of the USCCB statement follows:

"Today is a tragic day for marriage and our nation. The Supreme Court has dealt a profound injustice to the American people by striking down in part the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The Court got it wrong. The federal government ought to respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so. The preservation of liberty and justice requires that all laws, federal and state, respect the truth, including the truth about marriage. It is also unfortunate that the Court did not take the opportunity to uphold California's Proposition 8 but instead decided not to rule on the matter. The common good of all, especially our children, depends upon a society that strives to uphold the truth of marriage. Now is the time to redouble our efforts in witness to this truth."

United States v. Windsor

The case before the Supreme Court was United States v. Windsor. Edith Windsor sued the federal government when her refund request for $363,053 in federal estate taxes was denied by the IRS following the 2009 death of Thea Spyer, whom Windsor had married in Toronto in 2007. She contended that DOMA violated the equal protection statements within the Fifth Amendment.

Though their marriage was recognized by the state of New York, DOMA prevented it from being recognized at the federal level, and Windsor did not qualify for the marital exemption to federal estate taxes.

Section 3 of DOMA codified not recognizing same-sex marriages at the federal level, explicitly defining marriage as between one man and one woman. This affected insurance benefits, Social Security survivors’ benefits and joint tax returns. Section 3 had already been found unconstitutional in eight federal courts.

The Fifth Amendment states:

"No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Windsor, declaring Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional. Some of the main reasons include:

  • Violation of the equal liberty of persons protected in the Fifth Amendment
  • Taking the traditional responsibility of defining and recognizing marriages from the individual states
  • Targeting a class that individual states sought to protect
  • Financial and emotional harm to children
  • Treating same-sex marriages as "second-class marriages" under federal law
  • Inflicting public burdens on same-sex couples, including benefits and taxes
  • Removal of normal duties and responsibilities essential to married life

Read more about the decision in the court opinions.

Section 2, which allows States to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed under the laws of another State, was not challenged in this case.

Proposition 8

In declining to rule on California’s Proposition 8, the Supreme Court effectively upheld a lower court’s overruling of the 2008 state referendum that banned gay marriage. The Supreme Court ruled that the petitioners did not have standing to appeal the District Court’s order.

Read the court opinions for more information.

Catholic reaction

"It feels arbitrary because the Court could quite easily — after consulting DOMA's legislative history, and the merits briefs in the case — have concluded that Congress and the President enacted DOMA in order to support the unique goods offered by opposite-sex marriage. These goods include both the integration of men and women in society, and the birth and rearing of children in family settings in which the benefits of genealogical connection and opposite-sexed parenting are preserved.

"It also feels arbitrary because the Court ignored over 125 years of its own family law decisions repeatedly recognizing with approval governmental interests in the procreative features of marriage: childbirth and childrearing by the adults who conceived them, and the contribution of that childrearing to a stable democratic society." Helen Alvare, professor of law at George Mason University School of Law

"If you can define your own concept of meaning, well, I suppose you can play Alice in Wonderland with any concept you want, including marriage. So at least Justice Kennedy is consistent in his self-contradiction, and this decision is simply a consequence of the earlier principle. However, he even goes farther here and apparently can read hearts, since he claims that the 'purpose' is to 'disparage and to injure'. So one man sets himself against the wisdom of all recorded history which recognizes the obvious: a marital union can do what no other union can; further it is not only a benefit to the state, but the state cannot exist without it. Giving it special status and protection does not disparage or injure anyone; it simply recognizes an empirical fact that only the willfully blind can fail to see." Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, founder and editor of Ignatius Press

"[F]ive Justices (including one who graduated from my own alma mater, Cardinal Spellman High School) have decided that anyone who believes that 'marriage' means 'one man, one woman', is irrational, motivated solely by hatred and a desire to stigmatize and insult homosexual persons. Yes, the Supreme Court has now said that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the vast majority of Protestant communities, Orthodox Jews, virtually all Muslims, and many others of no faith, are mere bigots. We have been cast out of polite society." Ed Mechmann, Archdiocese of New York Family Life/Respect Life Office on public policy issues

"While today's decision voids federal law it opens the doors to others: it allows the citizens of each state the opportunity to uphold the true definition of marriage by voting for representatives and legislation that defend the true definition of marriage. I call on all people of good will to make their voices heard through the democratic process by upholding marriage in their home states. … This archdiocese remains resolved in the belief that no Catholic priest will ever be compelled to condone — even silently — same-sex 'marriages.'" Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, J.C.D., for the Military Services, USA

"While civil law establishes societal standards of conduct, we must also consider the natural law, moral law and divine revelation. It is from these fonts of wisdom and grace that we Catholics understand that marriage between one man and one woman is a gift to humanity. The blessings of such a marriage cannot be legislated, litigated or changed by civil authorities." Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City

"Once again, the church is a 'sign of contradiction'. We are in the middle of an American version of the English Reformation, where an issue of marriage and sexual license will be used to eventually dismantle and suppress one church while establishing another. We simply haven't come across Thomas More, yet." Elizabeth Scalia, managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos

"Simply put, the Church has, and must continue to oppose every erosion of traditional marriage because traditional marriage is what is best for children. And while it is true that we have a pastoral concern to call to repentance those who commit serious sexual sins, such as fornication, adultery, and homosexual acts, from the public policy point of view the Church's stance on marriage is that traditional marriage is what is best and just for children. Hence to act in ways, or adopt policies that further erode traditional marriage, is to act unjustly. It is unjust because it fosters and encourages a climate that is increasingly poisonous and problematic for the children who are raised in it." Msgr. Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C.

"As Catholics we believe marriage needs to be strengthened, not redefined. It is a great gift to men, women, children and society. Affirming the true definition of marriage denies no one his or her basic rights. On the contrary protecting marriage affirms the equal dignity of women and men and safeguards the basic rights of children.

Same-sex unions, whatever legal form they take, cannot create new life. They cannot duplicate the love of a man and woman. But they do copy marriage and family, and in the process, they compete with and diminish the uniquely important status of both. The legal battle about marriage will continue. And the Church's commitment to promote the authentic meaning of marriage and family will be vigorously pursued." Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia

"Catholic teaching protects the dignity of every human person, all deserving love and respect, including those who experience same-sex attraction. This is a reality that calls for compassion, sensitivity, and pastoral care. But no one –especially a child, is served by marriage redefinition." Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta

"The truth is that marriage is between a man and a woman. … Court decisions may change, but the truth does not… The Catholic Church will be faithful to this truth whether it is convenient or not." Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile

"Time to shift the battleground in the war on marriage from the realm of politics to the realm of culture. Time for Christians to take to heart once again the words of the Psalmist: 'Put not your trust in princes; in the sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.' Because even the best of politicians, wanting to win office or to remain in it once he gets there, is constantly tempted to see which way the wind is blowing. And the wind in the United States — even among many self-identified Catholics, like Justice Anthony Kennedy, the author of the DOMA decision — is in favor of a moral revolution that is striking at the very foundation of civilization: the family.

"We can win the war on marriage on the battleground of culture, because a society built on a concept of marriage-that-is-not-marriage cannot long endure. But to shift the battleground, the Church must take the lead — and not the Church generically, but the Catholic Church specifically." Scott P. Richert, executive editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture

"[T]his issue is an absolute juggernaut, threatening to crush faithful Christians who stand in its way. Make no mistake: This will become a fierce threat to our religious liberty as faithful Catholics and Christians. ... Leadership from Rome could not be more imperative. Action is needed — and needed quickly. And this Pope, welcomed and beloved (thus far) by dissenting Catholics and secular progressives because of his care for the poor and the environment, is the perfect messenger for the message. He is the ideal man at the ideal time. He's so perfect for this particular task that his choice indeed seems Providential." Paul Kegnor, professor of political science at Grove City College

Continuing coverage

Other resources

Jennifer Rey is the web editor of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing.