It’s complicated: Sorting out the rulings on gay marriage

June 27, 2013 

Two landmark Supreme Court rulings that bolster gay marriage rights don't remove all barriers to same-sex unions by a long shot. Where gay couples live still will have a lot to do with how they're treated.

Q: Can you boil down these two big rulings - 104 pages in all - to the basics?

A: In one case, the court said legally married gay couples are entitled to the same federal benefits available to heterosexual couples. In the other, it cleared the way for gay marriages to resume in California, where voters banned them in 2008.

What type of benefits are we talking about?

More than you'd expect. There are more than 1,000 federal laws in which marital status matters, covering everything from income and inheritance taxes to health benefits and pensions. In states where gay marriage is legal, same-sex couples might actually be looking forward to filing their income taxes next April - married, filing jointly.

Why does it matter where you live?

Even with Wednesday's ruling, where legally married gay couples live could affect their federal benefits. Social Security survivor benefits, for example, depend on where a couple is living when a spouse dies. If that happens in a state that bans or does not recognize the union, it's not for sure that the surviving spouse will be entitled to the payments.

How did the justices vote?

Both rulings were 5-4. Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan ruled together to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. Chief Justice John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were in the minority.

In the California ruling, Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor were in the majority. Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas and Alito were in the minority.

What does the U.S. marriage map look like right now?

It's a patchwork. Same-sex marriage is legal in 12 states and the District of Columbia (California makes 13). Twenty-nine states have constitutional amendments that ban gay marriage. Six states have laws that ban it. Two states neither allow gay marriage nor ban it.

How many same-sex couples in the U.S. have been legally married?

The numbers are squishy. The Pew Research Center estimates there have been at least 71,000 legal marriages since 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize them, but says there are almost certainly more. The Williams Institute, a UCLA-based think tank, says approximately 114,000 couples are legally married and more than 108,000 are in civil unions or registered domestic partnerships. In California alone, 18,000 same-sex couples were married during the 142-day period when gay unions were legal there in 2008.

Why all of the focus Wednesday on California?

The second case that the court addressed related to a 2008 state ballot proposition that added a ban on gay marriage to the California Constitution. The court didn't rule on the merits of that ballot proposal, but it left in place a trial court's declaration that the proposition is unconstitutional. That means same-sex weddings could resume in California in about a month, although a federal appeals court there said it might continue to bar gay marriages even longer if proponents of Proposition 8 ask for a rehearing.

What more could the Supreme Court have done?

Tons. It could have given gay Americans the same constitutional right to marry as heterosexuals. Instead, it sidestepped the looming question of whether banning gay marriage is unconstitutional.

What's President Barack Obama's take?

He welcomed the ruling striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act and directed Attorney General Eric Holder to make sure federal laws are in sync with the ruling. Already, the Defense Department says it is beginning the process to extend health care, housing and other federal benefits to the same-sex spouses of members of the military.

Statesman wire services

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