Two landmark rulings have come out of the US Supreme Court this afternoon. In a 5-4 vote, the Court ruled that the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), which bars the federal government from recognising same-sex marriages, violates the equal protection clause of the constitution; and in another 5-4 vote, the court refused to take an appeal from California over whether Proposition 8, a voter initiative which banned same-sex marriage in the state, should remain struck down.
The immediate effect in California is one of relief. The attempt to appeal to the Supreme Court had been hanging over couples' heads since 2010, when the Proposition was initially overturned by the US District Court. In the last three years, the appeal has risen through the court system to the Supreme Court, with its unconstitutionality being reaffirmed every time. Now that SCOTUS has refused to take the case, the unconstitutionality of Proposition 8 is set in stone, and couples in same-sex marriages in the state of California can rest easy.
The overturning of DOMA will have more wide-ranging effects. The act barred the federal government from recognising same-sex marriages at all, through an amendment to the "Dictionary Act" which defines terms used in other pieces of legislation. As a result, a couple legally married in Canada whose marriage was recognised by the state of New York are nonetheless treated as cohabiting by the federal government. This was the background of one of the cases which made it to the court today: Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer had been married for two years when Spyer died. Windsor found herself owing over $350,000 in federal estate taxes which she ought not to have had to pay (the federal estate tax provides an exemption for surviving spouses).
But the most important immediate effect for many will be on immigration. The federal government was not able to recognise same-sex marriages for immigration purposes, leaving many bi-national couples stuck in exile in countries like Britain and Canada. Andrew Sullivan has written extensively about this problem, calling it the "conservative case for same-sex marriage"; and now that case has been made, conclusively.