WASHINGTON — A fractured Supreme Court effectively opened the door for same-sex marriages to resume throughout California on Wednesday, saying it did not have the authority to hear a case challenging that state’s ban on gay and lesbian weddings.
The court’s 5-4 decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, does not directly overturn the same-sex marriage ban California voters approved in 2008. Instead, Roberts, writing for an unusual coalition of justices, sent the question back to a federal district court in California, which had barred state officials from enforcing the law, known as Proposition 8. In so doing, the decision could set the stage for gays and lesbians to marry throughout the nation’s largest state, though its immediate effects were unclear.
Roberts was joined by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, as well as three of the court’s more liberal justices. They said backers of Proposition 8 did not have standing to challenge a lower court ruling that invalidated the law, effectively reinstating the lower court’s decision.
“Because we find that petitioners do not have standing, we have no authority to decide this case on the merits, and neither did the Ninth Circuit,” Roberts wrote.
The decision came in the second of two gay rights cases decided by the high court on Wednesday. In the first, justices invalidated a part of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples from states that already permit gay marriage.
The California Supreme Court cleared the way for gay marriages four years ago, and quickly about 18,000 couples tied the knot. That led opponents of same-sex marriage to demand a voter referendum outlawing gay marriage, which passed narrowly in November 2008.
The original lawsuit against Proposition 8, filed by a gay couple and a lesbian couple, had prevailed at both lower federal courts. The district court said the law violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause because it was “premised on the belief that same-sex couples simply are not as good as opposite-sex couples.” The appeals court ruled more narrowly that voters could not take away a right previously granted to the state’s gays and lesbians.
Since then, after a string of successful state bans on gay marriage, a half dozen more states have legalized the practice: Maine, Maryland, Washington, Delaware, Rhode Island and Minnesota. Waiting in the wings are several others, from New Jersey to Hawaii.
Rather than remaining on the sidelines in the California debate, the Obama administration came out forcefully this year against the ban and helped to argue the case in court. It singled out California and several other states that allow civil unions or domestic partnerships, arguing they cannot deny the title of marriage.