Hudson Valley gay rights activists are bracing for two landmark rulings Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court that could help shape the nation's society for years.
The most highly awaited case for the LGBT community is the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as the union of a man and woman, excluding same-sex couples from collecting federal benefits.
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The DOMA ruling as well as a ruling on California's Proposition 8 will come on the final day of the Supreme Court's term. The respective rulings may well be relatively narrow, but their legal and political consequences will be profound.
Joe Coe, a Pomona resident and vice chairman of the Democratic Party's Young Democrats of America LGBTQ Caucus, said current federal law sits at odds with core American principles.
"The Defense of Marriage Act is an antiquated law that codifies institutional discrimination against loving and committed couples," he said. "It must be repealed in order for America to live up to its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Poll after poll indicates that a majority of Americans support marriage equality, and young people overwhelmingly want their gay and lesbian friends, family and neighbors to have the same rights and responsibilities as their heterosexual counterparts. The time is now to dump DOMA."
Coe's sentiments were echoed by Diana Wilkins, a 33-year-old Nyack resident and political activist.
"It really will show the country where we stand with marriage," she said. "If the decision is not for tossing out DOMA, what kind of message are we sending to the LGBT community?"
WHAT IS AT STAKE
"The justices are not likely to announce that the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage is now over," said Richard W. Garnett, a University of Notre Dame Law School professor.
He said it appears that "a majority of the justices are not looking to issue sweeping and definitive rulings on hot-button questions and are instead finding ways to resolve these cases that allow other actors, including Congress, to play the leading role."
Certainly, for each question answered Wednesday, many new ones will arise. The high court could render a narrow ruling on the constitutionality of DOMA, or it could make a sweeping decision on Section 3 of the law, which defines marriage, for purposes of federal law, as the union between a man and woman.
Upholding DOMA would not affect laws in New York and 11 other states and the District of Columbia that allow gay marriage, but would bar gay Americans married in those states from receiving benefits such as health insurance for spouses and Social Security survivor benefits.
"While we can’t predict what the court will say, the past few years building up to this day have seen a sea change in accepting the idea that all loving and committed couples ... deserve the protections and dignity that only come with marriage," James Esseks, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said Tuesday.
In a twist in the DOMA case, the Obama administration dropped its defense of the law and now argues that it is unconstitutional, though it still enforces it. Once the Obama administration dropped its defense, the House Republican leadership took over the case. The justices could rule that the House Republicans have no standing to defend the law or that the Supreme Court does not have authority to rule on the case, creating an uncertain outcome.
The office of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had no comment.
A SEVEN-STATE DECISION?
Also being closely watched by the lesbian and gay community: a decision on California's Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage.
If the justices take the most sweeping step, they could invalidate Proposition 8 and laws against gay marriage in states throughout the country.
Alternatively, they would make a narrower decision that applies only to California as well as Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey and Oregon.
Those states already treat gay and straight couples the same in almost every respect through civil unions or domestic partnerships. The only difference is that gay couples there are not allowed to marry.
This so-called seven-state solution would say that the Constitution forbids states to withhold marriage from same-sex couples while giving them all the basic rights of married people. But this ruling would not implicate marriage bans in other states and would leave open the question of whether states could deprive gay couples of any rights at all.
The narrowest of these potential outcomes would apply to California only. The justices essentially would adopt the rationale of the federal appeals court that found that California could not take away the right to marry that had been granted by the state Supreme Court in 2008, before Proposition 8 passed.
"We are, of course, quite hopeful that the court will not interfere with the right of the people to decide this very important issue of public policy," said National Organization for Marriage president and Prop. 8 supporter John Eastman recently.
As with the DOMA case, the justices also could decide that one of the parties does not have standing to bring the case to the court. The outcome in that case would be uncertain.
Legal complications aside, to Phyllis Frank, director of the gay pride program for VCS Inc., a Rockland-based not-for-profit, the issue is simply about equal rights.
"This is not about whether marriage is a good or bad institution," she said. "It's about the reality that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people must have the same rights to participate in every community institution that the heterosexual community can choose to participate in."
With D.Z. Stone and The Associated Press