Meanwhile, advocates for gay marriage promised to continue their fight for its nationwide legalization, while its opponents pledged to continue to defend the traditional biblical definition of marriage.
In one of two opinions issued Wednesday (June 26) in cases involving same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court struck down part of a law that defines marriage for federal purposes as only between a man and a woman.
The justices upheld lower court decisions that struck down only Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). That portion defines marriage as a heterosexual union for purposes of such matters as federal benefits and bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
The high court did not rule on DOMA's Section 2, which was not challenged in the case. That section authorizes states to refuse to recognize gay marriages performed in states where such unions are legal.
On Thursday (June 27), Obama appeared to call for revocation of that protection for the three-fourths of the states that have not legalized same-sex marriage.
"My personal belief, but I'm speaking as a president as opposed to a lawyer, is that if you've been married in Massachusetts and you move someplace else -- you're still married, and under federal law you should be able to obtain benefits," Obama told reporters, according to The Washington Post. The president was in Senegal, his first stop on a three-country trip to Africa.
Only the day before, the justices not only had refused to nullify the rest of DOMA, but they declined to legalize gay marriage throughout the country or to say states cannot limit marriage to heterosexual couples.
The president's suggestion of "further policy change" seems to run counter to "the spirit of this decision and the pattern of law," which "has been to respect the laws of marriage in the state where a couple lives," said Jennifer A. Marshall, a defender of traditional marriage.
"It's clear he's suggesting where he stands on the policy," Marshall told Baptist Press, but the means he might use "to try to get there remains to be seen."
Obama's evolution in little more than a year from saying only heterosexual unions constitute marriage to supporting same-sex marriage "is disappointing, because he, more than many, has spoken very eloquently about the importance of fathers.... And yet, he has come to support a policy that would make fathers optional," said Marshall, director of The Heritage Foundation's DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society.
Same-sex marriage proponents celebrated their victory at the Supreme Court Wednesday, but they made it clear they were after more -- the full recognition of gay marriage across the land.
"Federal recognition for lesbian and gay couples is a massive turning point for equality, but it is not complete until every family is guaranteed complete access to the protections they need regardless of state borders," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the country's largest organization promoting civil rights for homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender people.
Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, said, "We will not rest until same-sex couples are treated equally not only by the federal government but in every state and community across the nation."
HRC's Griffin urged the Obama administration to implement the DOMA ruling broadly. In a statement Wednesday, Obama said he already had directed Attorney General Eric Holder "to work with other members of my Cabinet to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, including its implications for Federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly."
Thorough implementation could be time-consuming. More than 1,100 federal provisions exist based on the traditional definition of marriage, including Social Security and tax benefits. In some cases, federal agencies look at the state in which a marriage was performed to determine its validity, while others look at the state in which a person lives to make that decision, according to HRC.
Same-sex marriage proponents in Congress acted the same day as the court's ruling in an effort to overturn all of DOMA. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D.-Calif., and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D.-N.Y., introduced the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA. It had 41 cosponsors in the Senate and 161 in the House of Representatives.
Gay marriage advocates eventually may gain a total victory for their cause -- possibly sooner rather than later -- from the Supreme Court. One justice said in a DOMA dissent his colleagues had laid the groundwork for such a result.
"It takes real cheek for today's majority to assure us, as it is going out the door, that a constitutional requirement to give formal recognition to same-sex marriage is not at issue here -- when what has preceded that assurance is a lecture on how superior the majority's moral judgment in favor of same-sex marriage is to the Congress's hateful moral judgment against it," Associate Justice Antonin Scalia wrote.
After the DOMA ruling, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R.-Kan., said he would introduce an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and Heritage Foundation were among advocates of traditional marriage that said after the high court's Wednesday rulings the debate would continue and they would maintain their efforts. ADF "will not waver in our efforts for marriage," said Alan Sears, its president.
The high court sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and ordered it to vacate its ruling against Prop 8. The action left in effect a federal judge's opinion striking down Prop 8.
Public officials and legal advocates differed on the impact of the ruling. On the same day as the ruling, California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the state to inform counties they must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples when the Ninth Circuit rules in response to the Supreme Court's order. ADF, which helped defend Prop 8, said, however, the amendment remained the "law of the land in California."
Under the California constitution, "an initiative by the citizens of California is the law of California" until an appeals court reverses it, ADF Senior Counsel Austin Nimocks told reporters Wednesday outside the Supreme Court. The challenge was not a class-action lawsuit, and a federal judge cannot invalidate the amendment for the entire state, he said.
The situation with Prop 8 appears ripe for further challenges in the courts.
California voters approved Proposition 8 as an amendment to the state constitution in 2008 after the state Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage earlier in the year.
While the immediate legal future of same-sex marriage remains uncertain in California, 12 states and the District of Columbia already have legalized gay marriage. The states are Connecticut; Delaware; Iowa; Maine; Maryland; Massachusetts; Minnesota; New Hampshire; New York; Rhode Island; Washington and Vermont.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission signed onto friend-of-the-court briefs defending the biblical definition of marriage in both cases.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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