WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused to get involved in the national debate over same-sex marriage Monday, leaving intact lower court rulings that will legalize the practice in 11 additional states.
The unexpected decision by the justices, announced without further explanation, immediately affects five states in which federal appeals courts had struck down bans against gay marriage: Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Utah.
It also will bring along six other states located in the judicial circuits overseen by those appellate courts: North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming. Lower court judges in those states must abide by their appeals court rulings.
The action eventually will bring to 30 the number of states where gays and lesbians can marry. Appeals courts in Cincinnati and San Francisco are considering cases that could expand that number further, presuming the Supreme Court remains outside the legal fray.
“The court’s letting stand these victories means that gay couples will soon share in the freedom to marry in 30 states, representing 60% of the American people,” said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry. “But we are one country, with one Constitution, and the court’s delay in affirming the freedom to marry nationwide prolongs the patchwork of state-to-state discrimination and the harms and indignity that the denial of marriage still inflicts on too many couples in too many places.”
Most court-watchers had predicted the justices would hear one or more cases this term and issue a verdict with nationwide implications by next June. But the justices, perhaps sensing that the country is headed toward legalizing gay marriage without their involvement, chose to deny states’ appeals.
What happens now will occur in stages. The five states whose petitions were denied will have same-sex marriages almost immediately — starting at 1 p.m. Monday in Virginia. In the other six, either attorneys general will clear the way or another court proceeding will be necessary.
Carol Schall, one of the plaintiffs in the Virginia case, was at work when she got an e-mail from colleagues saying the high court had denied the state’s appeal. “Marriage legal,” it said.
“My office mates heard a gasp from my office … only to see me in a puddle of tears,” said Schall, who had sued to have her California marriage to Mary Townley recognized in Virginia, where they live.
Opponents of same-sex marriage said they would not give up the fight, despite the court’s decision. “Several federal courts … still have cases working their way to the Supreme Court,” said Byron Babione, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, which had defended the Oklahoma and Virginia bans. “The people should decide this issue, not the courts.”
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage, and the high court ruled last year that the federal government cannot deny benefits to such couples. It sidestepped the remaining state laws by taking no position on the merits of California’s ban, which had been struck down by lower federal courts.
Since those decisions were handed down, six additional states have legalized gay marriage, and federal and state judges in at least 14 more states have overturned marriage bans, beginning with Utah last December. All those rulings had been put on hold during the appeals process, leaving 31 bans in place — until Monday.
“Any time same-sex couples are extended marriage equality is something to celebrate, and today is a joyous day for thousands of couples across America who will immediately feel the impact of today’s Supreme Court action,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights organization. “But … the complex and discriminatory patchwork of marriage laws that was prolonged today by the Supreme Court is unsustainable. The only acceptable solution is nationwide marriage equality.”