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Q&A: What Supreme Court marriage rulings mean


Published:   |   Updated: June 26, 2013 at 09:42 PM

WASHINGTON - 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.

Some questions and answers about Wednesday's court rulings:

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 straight couples. In the other, it cleared the way for gay marriages to resume in California, where voters banned them in 2008.

Q: What type of benefits are we talking about?

A: 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 may actually be looking forward to filing their income taxes next April - married, filing jointly.

Q. Why does it matter where a gay couple lives?

A: Even with Wednesday's ruling, where legally married gay couples live still may affect the federal benefits they can obtain, at least for now. 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. Immigration law, meanwhile, only looks at where people were married, not where they live. It's complicated.

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

A: It's a patchwork. Same-sex marriage is legal in 12 states and the District of Columbia - representing 18 percent of the U.S. population. When gay marriage resumes in California, the figure will jump to 30 percent. Twenty-nine other states have constitutional amendments that ban gay marriage. Six states have laws that ban it. Two states neither allow gay marriage nor ban it.

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

A: 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.

Q: What's all this talk about DOMA?

A: DOMA is the federal Defense of Marriage Act, enacted in 1996. The court on Wednesday struck down a section of that law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law. That's what had denied legally married gay couples access to a host of federal benefits and programs that are available to straight couples.

Q: Why all of the focus Wednesday on California?

A: 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 may continue to bar gay marriages even longer if proponents of Proposition 8 ask for a rehearing.

Q: What more could the Supreme Court have done?

A: 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.

Q: What's President Barack Obama's take on all of this?

A: 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. (Obama, who endorsed gay marriage last year, broke with his Republican and Democratic predecessors and declined to defend the law in court.) 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.

Q: How does the public feel about gay marriage?

A: Public support has grown dramatically in the last few years, with a majority now favoring legal marriage for gay couples. There's even broader support for extending to gay couples the same legal rights and benefits that are available to married straight couples. An Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll last fall found 63 percent favored granting gay couples the same legal benefits straight couples had. And 53 percent favored legal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Q: What happens next?

A: Supporters of gay marriage will keep pressing to legalize same-sex unions in all 50 states. That means more battles in individual states, and more visits to the Supreme Court.

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