Gay marriage ruling keeps states in control, ensuring more debates to come - Omaha.com
Published Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 8:10 am
SUPREME COURT
Gay marriage ruling keeps states in control, ensuring more debates to come

Marriage just got a lot more complicated as the result of a historic ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday that ordered the federal government to recognize all marriages, including same-sex marriages performed in states that allow such unions.

How complicated?

Well, just look at the neighboring states of Iowa and Nebraska.

In Iowa, gay marriage is now legal on both the state and federal level. A married gay couple in Iowa, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2010, will soon qualify for Social Security benefits and all other federal benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples.

In Nebraska, same-sex marriage remains illegal. The only way for a gay couple from Nebraska to qualify for any type of federal benefits is if they are married legally in another state. But even then, their marriage will not be recognized by their home state.

The Supreme Court's ruling overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, sparked gay-rights victory parties in Iowa and Nebraska, while opponents voiced anger and disappointment.

What the DOMA ruling means for Nebraska, Iowa

Iowa: Same-sex couples in Iowa will have federal as well as state recognition. Almost immediately, same-sex couples who were married and live in Iowa will be eligible for federal benefits — no longer having to file two tax returns, one as a married couple for Iowa and one as a single individual for the federal government.

Nebraska: Same-sex marriage will remain illegal in Nebraska, so same-sex couples in the state will not qualify for federal benefits.

But a big question looms: Will same-sex couples who were married in Iowa but live in Nebraska qualify for federal benefits?

Video: Reactions to the Supreme Court rulings from across the country

More: Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage: How it affects Nebraska, Iowa

Documents: Read the Supreme Court rulings

“There are moments in history that you will always remember, and this is one of those moments,” Becki Brenner, the head of Nebraska ACLU, told a crowd of about 150 at an impromptu rally held Wednesday at Memorial Park in Omaha. “However, I must tell you, we are not done.”

U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a longtime opponent of same-sex marriage, said voters and not Supreme Court judges should get the final word on gay marriage.

“I am disappointed in the court's ruling today because the American people should hold the power to determine marriage policy, not the Supreme Court,” he said.

The lack of uniformity in national policy — as highlighted by Nebraska and Iowa — will almost certainly become the next key talking point in the nation's ongoing same-sex-marriage war.

Michael Gordon, a longtime gay-rights activist from Omaha, argued that Wednesday's high court opinion will be viewed as the “tipping point” in years to come. Eventually, he believes, states such as Nebraska will either be forced by a court to recognize same-sex marriage or they will come to embrace such marriages as they become more widespread.

“At some point, someone is going to have to step in and say, 'Everybody is married everywhere. End of story,' ” said Gordon.

Al Riskowski, who fought to enact Nebraska's ban in 2000, acknowledged that the momentum appeared to be on same-sex-marriage advocates' side.

He also agreed that the nation had reached a “critical” juncture and that the gay-marriage pendulum was poised to swing in one direction. But his hope was that it would swing toward those who believe in “traditional marriage.”

“Which way is America going to go? Which way is Nebraska going to go?” asked Riskowski. “The final decision is still up to the people of the country.”

The ruling issued by the Supreme Court has widespread ramifications. The court struck down a law that prohibited same-sex marriages that were legally performed in one of 12 states from being recognized by the federal government.

The 1996 law essentially prevented gay couples from receiving any federal benefits given to heterosexual couples, including Social Security benefits and federal family leave benefits.

The court ruled, in an opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, that the federal law “demeaned” same-sex couples by turning their union into a “second-class marriage.” He also argued that states, and not the federal government, get to regulate state marriages.

“DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others,” Kennedy said.

However, the justices made it clear that they continued to believe that each state has the right to either approve or reject same-sex marriages.

The high court had the opportunity to issue a national ruling that would have legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, but it didn't. In a case involving same-sex marriage in California, the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to a lower court's ruling that struck down a gay-marriage ban, known as Proposition 8, that was passed by Californians in 2008.

The high court's technical ruling opened the door to legalizing gay marriage in California once again, but only in California. It left all other state bans, including Nebraska's, in place.

The high court's rulings gave comfort to some same-sex marriage opponents such as Bob Vander Plaats, a former Iowa gubernatorial candidate who has made it his mission to overturn an Iowa Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage in his state in 2009.

He said the rulings make it clear that the issue will be fought at the state level. “We believe the marriage debate is alive, and we intend to fully engage it,” Vander Plaats said.

Gay-rights supporters believe that the California ruling was only a minor setback on the road to a national policy. With the disputed federal law now struck down, many said it was only a matter of time before same-sex marriage became legal in all 50 states.

“This is an enormous victory. It's a very emotional day,” said Jess Meadows Anderson, a Nebraska woman who married her wife, Ariann Anderson, in Iowa in 2011.

Meadows Anderson believes that someday soon, she and her wife will qualify for all the federal benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples, although, she acknowledged, that was not a given as of Wednesday.

But if that doesn't happen, Anderson said she and Ariann would move across the state line to Council Bluffs. “I think a lot of people (Nebraskans) would,” said Meadows Anderson.

Right now, the law is unclear on what federal benefits will be available to couples such as the Andersons who are legally married in one state but live in another state where same-sex marriage is banned.

Under federal law, each federal department makes a separate determination on whether a marriage qualifies for certain benefits. For example, for Social Security, a couple has to be legally married in the state in which they reside. Other benefits, including veterans benefits, consider only where a marriage was performed.

Same-sex-marriage supporters are hopeful that President Barack Obama will issue an executive order ensuring that most, if not all, federal benefits are available to all legally married gay couples.

On Wednesday, Obama appeared to take a step in that direction, calling on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to review federal statutes and make them conform to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel didn't wait.

Hagel, a former Nebraska U.S. senator, announced that military benefits would now be given to all military spouses, regardless of sexual orientation.

“That is now the law, and it is the right thing to do,” Hagel said.

It was a decision that appeared to overwhelm Staff Sgt. Francesca Nella, stationed at Offutt Air Force Base. Nella, who is thinking about getting married to a fellow female service member, said it's amazing how fast things have changed for gay military personnel.

It was only a little over two years ago that Congress repealed the “don't ask, don't tell” policy.

“We'll be able to get orders together and have (a housing allowance) and do all the stuff straight people get to do when they get married,” Nella said.

“It's crazy to go from having no say — you're pretty much invisible — to having everything in the world, just like every other couple,” she added.

The court ruling had little impact on the Catholic Church.

Tim McNeil, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Omaha, said the church believes the Supreme Court got it wrong. He said the church has no plans to give up on the fight for “traditional marriage,” even though some public polls show that support for same-sex marriage has grown.

“We have to double down on our efforts to continue to teach our constituents, our faithful, the meaning and importance of traditional marriage. We have to ramp it up,” McNeil said.

“We don't respond to public opinion polls,” McNeil said. “We have to be faithful to the church.”

Ryan Roemerman, the executive director of the Iowa Pride network, which supports gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender young people, said having DOMA overturned will give young people hope.

“It's really important for young people to see the highest court in the land affirm that their relationships are just as important and just as legal as that of their heterosexual counterparts,” he said. “They can see their lives are going to have the same benefits and opportunities.”

Video: Reactions to the Supreme Court rulings from across the country

Contact the writer: Robynn Tysver

robynn.tysver@owh.com    |   402-444-1309    |  

Robynn is Omaha.com's elections writer. She's covered presidential politics in Iowa's caucuses, and gubernatorial and Senate races in Nebraska.

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