Bishops Respond to Supreme Court Marriage Rulings
by David Gibson
In two separate 5-4 rulings June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act and declined for technical reasons to rule on a case involving California’s Proposition 8, a 2008 voter initiative that barred same-sex marriage.
In light of the court’s ruling in the California case, Proposition 8 is expected to return to the state’s lower courts; within about 30 days, same-sex marriages are expected to resume in the state, at least for now. The court held that proponents of Proposition 8 who defended it before the court did not have legal standing to do so.
“Today is a tragic day for marriage and our nation,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said in a joint statement June 26. Cardinal Dolan is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop Cordileone chairs the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.
“The common good of all, especially our children, depends upon a society that strives to uphold the truth of marriage,” said the church leaders. Calling for a redoubling of “efforts in witness to this truth,” they said the court’s “decisions are part of a public debate of great consequence. The future of marriage and the well-being of our society hang in the balance.”
Under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, typically called DOMA, the term marriage” was defined to mean “only a legal union between one man and one woman as hus¬band and wife.” In addition, the word “spouse” referred “only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”
DOMA meant that same-sex couples, though married in a state where marriage is legal for them, could not receive federal benefits available to opposite-sex married couples. The high court’s DOMA decision can be expected to make federal benefits available to same-sex couples in such areas as tax law or Social Security, and to impact a wide range of federal laws related to marriage.
In its majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court held DOMA to be discriminatory and unconstitutional, and suggested the law fell short when it came to recognizing the role of the individual states in the regulation of domestic relations. “DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States code,” Kennedy wrote.
The court held that “no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”
Church Leaders React
Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Cordileone said, however, that “the court got it wrong.” For, “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.”
To preserve liberty and justice, the church leaders said, it is essential that “all laws, federal and state, respect the truth, including the truth about marriage.” Moreover, they said:
“Our culture has taken for granted for far too long what human nature, experience, common sense and God’s wise design all confirm: The difference between a man and a woman matters, and the difference between a mom and a dad matters.”
Neither of the high court’s June 26 decisions related to marriage overturns the laws of the large number of states that still define marriage solely as the union of a man and a woman. Nor did the court decide the constitutionality of same-sex marriage as such.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who dissented from the court’s majority in the DOMA case, said the court did not “have before it, and the logic of its opinion does not decide, the distinct question whether the states … may continue to utilize the traditional definition of marriage.”
In the weeks ahead, close observers of the court and others concerned about laws that legalize same-sex marriage will continue to discern precisely what these rulings suggest or hint at in terms of possible next steps.
In their joint statement, Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Cordileone asked “for prayers as the court’s decisions are reviewed and their implications further clarified.”
Church leaders were among those suggesting that the court’s actions would return the issue of same-sex marriage to the individual states. Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services suggested that while the court struck DOMA down, its decision also “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.”
The Washington Archdiocese, calling the court’s decisions “very troubling,” observed that “the apparent outcome of these decisions is that the federal government may not set parameters for the definition of marriage, but instead must leave that power to the states.”
Chief Justice Roberts thinks even the role of the individual states in this matter may come under scrutiny in future court cases. Roberts wrote:
“While ‘the state’s power in defining the marital relation is of central relevance’ to the majority’s decision to strike down DOMA here, that power will come into play on the other side of the board in future cases about the constitutionality of state marriage definitions. So, too, will the concerns for state diversity and sovereignty that weigh against DOMA’s constitutionality in this case.”
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore expressed concern that the court’s decisions on DOMA and Proposition 8 will “contribute to concerted efforts not just to redefine marriage but to dismantle it, efforts which represent a serious threat to religious liberty and conscience rights for countless people of faith.”
The archbishop chairs the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. He is a frequent spokesman on religious liberty challenges today. Currently, the Catholic Church in the U.S. is in the midst of its second Fortnight for Freedom observances.
The “threat to religious freedom” seen in current attempts to redefine marriage “is one of many … that has prompted our current Fortnight for Freedom, which we hope will inspire people throughout the country to prayer, education and action to preserve religious liberty,” said Archbishop Lori.
He cautioned against ignoring “the fundamental truth about marriage,” namely that “it is the most valued, most important social unit in our society and as such is deserving of the protection and special recognition societies have afforded it throughout human history.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.