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Area activists and political leaders take stock of gay marriage rulings

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: In a major ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned on Wednesday the Defense of Marriage Act, declaring that legally married same-sex couples deserve the same federal benefits that go to all other married couples. The court's decision would allow same-sex married couples to file joint federal tax returns, obtain Social Security benefits and be exempted from estate taxes, among other things.

The court also cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California. But that decision doesn't affect states with a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, such as Missouri.

Still, the pair of rulings sparked an obvious question: What happens if a couple gets married in a state that allows for gay marriage — such as Iowa or New York — and then lives in Missouri?

There doesn't appear to be any easy answer.

For A.J. Bockelman, executive director of the statewide gay rights organization PROMO, those questions may take time to sort out.

"What it does mean for us — and this is where it becomes very murky — is that many of 1,100 benefits afforded to married couples are impacted by federal agencies," Bockelman said. "So for example, IRS rules or Social Security benefits are all guided by federal agencies. So a couple that’s legally married in another state and resides in Missouri may at some point — and this is yet to be seen — be able to file jointly, be subject to Social Security, yet still not have those basic protections in Missouri."

"Those would be pieces that federal agencies could choose to implement on their own," he added. "My understanding is they wouldn’t need any sort of law for that to happen."

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, "The Supreme Court decides what they have to decide, not what we want them to decide. And they typically keep their rulings to the facts in front of them and the narrow decisions they have to make based on the points of law that have been accepted for their consideration.

"They never intended, I don't believe, to pass on the overall question of whether a ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional in the entire country. Rather [they decided] whether or not a federal statute was going to in some way limit the rights of individuals in states that had made the decision to make gay marriage legal.

"It was complicated before the decision and it remains complicated because you have different laws in different states. And this area is not the only area that you have those complications.

"I wish they could have made a decision that would have clarified everything. But, in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, they believe it is better to take these [cases] as they come, with the chance - and this has happened with this issue — that public opinion has moved significantly over the years. And I think it will continue to move significantly."

Tony Rothert, the legal director of the ACLU for Eastern Missouri, said in a statement that the "U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down DOMA highlights the unfairness of Missouri laws that mandate unequal treatment of same-sex couples and their families."

"It increases our optimism that the Missouri Supreme Court will honor the commitment between Kelly Glossip and Dennis Engelhard and Corporal Engelhard’s service to the people of this state for whom he gave his life," said Rothert, referring to a case before the state’s high court about whether the partner of a deceased Highway Patrol officer should receive survivor benefits.

Bockelman also said the court decisions may provide more momentum for Illinois, which recognizes civil unions, to legalize same-sex marriage. That proposal passed the Illinois Senate this year but failed to receive a vote in the Illinois House.

He added that such a push is important, because "there’s no component that talks about civil unions in response to federal benefits."

Equality Illinois, a group that supports legalizing same sex marriage, put out a statement on Wednesday that the “historic victory overturning the Defense of Marriage Act is bittersweet in the states like Illinois where couples are still denied the right and recognition of marriage.”

“For anyone who doubts that civil unions in Illinois created an unacceptable second-class status, the court’s ruling is a powerful message that the state House urgently needs to join the Senate and pass the freedom to marry,” the group said in a statement obtained by the Capitol Fax blog.

Decisions prompt differing reactions

The Supreme Court decisions sparked disparate reactions among the region’s political leaders and advocacy organizations.

Many of the state's leading Democrats were quick to praise the decision, seeing it as major civil rights victory.

McCaskill told reporters Wednesday that the Supreme Court decision on DOMA was an important case, but likely not the ultimate decision on the issue.

"It's a watershed moment for the country that the highest court in the land has determined that the federal government should not be discriminating against those people who live in states that have legalized gay marriage," McCaskill said. "I think it's a great decision and I applaud it."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a statement that “marriage equality has become one of the defining civil rights issues of our time and the court’s ruling [on DOMA] today reaffirmed a founding principle of our nation: equal justice under the law.” And U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, called the decision “a historic turning point that advances full equality for all.”

"The high court has affirmed that equal protection under the law applies to every American," Clay said.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay predicted in his statement that this weekend's Pride festival downtown would be “quite a party."

“In 2009, I was one of the mayors who voted to commit the U.S. Conference of Mayors to supporting marriage equality for same-sex couples so that such unions would have the same rights – family leave, retirement benefits, tax equity, and constitutional protection against discrimination – as heterosexual couples,” Slay said.

“I said then, and I repeat it now: this is not only a matter of fairness (though it is certainly that). Cities are strengthened by their families,” he added. “I want St. Louis to be the sort of diverse and open place in which all families, gay and straight, choose to live, create and build businesses.”

At an appearance in St. Louis today, Gov. Jay Nixon told reporters that the "ruling reflects the reality that reasonable people are seeing these issues of equality in new ways."

"Many Americans are reflecting on what’s constitutes discrimination," said Nixon, who is on record opposing same sex marriage. "And none of us wants to live in a society that condones discrimination. It’s one of the bedrock principles of our democracy. The decision today was an important step forward for equal protection and due process, two bedrock principles of our democracy … I will continue to reflect and look on this issue as we move forward.”

Prominent local Republicans focused on states' rights in their reactions.

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, said in a statement, “I believe in the sanctity of traditional marriage and believe that it should be up to states to determine the definition of marriage.”

“The people of Missouri have spoken and over 70 percent of Missourians decided that marriage should be between one man and one woman,” Wagner said. “I will always support states’ rights and the people of Missouri have made their decision.”

U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Harrisonville Republican who was heavily involved in passing Missouri’s same sex marriage ban, said in a statement that the “activist ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act ignored the votes of a bipartisan majority of Congress.” As for Proposition 8 case, Hartzler said, “The court ignored the voices of millions of Californians who went to the ballot box twice to protect marriage.

“Their governor and attorney general, who refused to defend the people’s wishes, abandoned the people of California," Hartzler said. "With the Supreme Court denying them standing, they trampled on the people’s rights and left them voiceless. This is a serious loss for democratic self-government and the rights of the people to stand for marriage as the union between one man and one woman."

U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, speaks a press conference reacting to the Supreme Court decisions.

But Hartzler emphasized that “while California has tried to silence the voices of their citizens, the Supreme Court has not created a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.” That conclusion was also at the crux of Missouri Family Policy Council Joe Ortwerth’s reaction to the decisions.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court chose not to radically redefine the institution of marriage in our country. We are relieved that the High Court resisted pleas to dismantle the bedrock social institution of our nation and of every thriving civilization,” Ortwerth said in a statement sent to the Beacon.

“Marriage between a man and a woman has been the cornerstone of the vitality and character of American culture since its founding. Countless generations have been blessed by the traditional family unit joined by together by men and women in commitment to each other and their children.

“We are most grateful to God that states like Missouri will be able to continue to defend and uphold the sacred institution of marriage as God designed it,” he added in a statement sent out to subscribers of the MFPC’s mailing list.

Missouri Republican Party chairman Ed Martin said in a statement "while many may debate the outcome of the decision Wednesday by the U. S. Supreme Court, the Court did echo supporting the will of the people in their decision state by state."

"Missourians have already clearly spoken," Martin said. "Citizens of the Show Me State decided to make clear their stance on marriage and its definition in our State Constitution. We will continue to remain vigilant of this administration’s activism with regard to forcing policy upon states and organizations that have already made their positions clear."

'Much work to be done'

Asked if the decision would prompt a push to repeal Missouri's constitutional amendment – which would require a statewide vote – Bockelman said his organization is "evaluating all options at this point.”

"Right now I wouldn’t be so quick to say it would be an easy lift to get rid of the constitutional amendment," said Bockelman. "But I do think this adds more weight and clarity to what has to happen in the days, months and years ahead with regard to gay and lesbian couples.”

While Bockelman said his organization knows “the tremendously historic nature of this decision,” he also noted “that there’s still much more work to be done.”

He emphasized, for instance, that Missouri doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity in its anti-discrimination statutes. And that, he said, places Missouri at a disadvantage in attracting people to move to this state.

“I would still note that we are still struggling with the basic issues – that you can be fired in the state if you’re gay,” Bockelman said. “So while couples may go to another state and get married, they may come back and find out because they got married that they’re out of the job."

While that proposal didn't get far in the past, that changed on the last day of the Missouri General Assembly's session. Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, attached that measure to another bill and it ultimately passed out of the Senate by 19-11 margin. It did not pass the House.

The bill's final version received support from several Republicans, including Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, Sens. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, and Mike Parson, R-Bolivar.

Nixon said that measure's movement through the Missouri Senate was "unthinkable just a few short years ago.

"I think that this decision is an important step forward for equal protection and due process," Nixon said. " I can’t speak about what will happen in the next legislative session … but it’s clear these issues are moving in a way toward less discrimination and more equality."

'Keep marching forward'

Hours after the Supreme Court released its decisions, dozens upon dozens of people crammed into the backyard of the LGBT Center of St. Louis in the Grove.

Among the speakers were Jan Barrier and Sherie Schild, a St. Louis couple who in 2009 got married in Iowa after same sex marriage became legal in that state. Schild said the DOMA decision is “a pivotal moment in our country’s history and in my personal history.

“Today my family is recognized as a family unit,” said Schild to applause.

The Beacon reported in 2010 that when Schild was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1990s, Barrier's employer – the federal government – gave her only two days off for her partner's double mastectomy. Later, when Schild was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had to go through chemotherapy, Barrier was demoted after she asked for time off.

Barrier told the crowd that her experiences are, in time, “not going to happen to other employees everywhere because of the fact that their marriages will be recognized the same as marriages for straight people.”

“They’ll be able to have leave to take care of their partners when they’re sick,” Barrier said. “They will not be taken and be escorted out of hospitals by security guards like I have been several times because my partner was ill. Things like that are not going to happen anymore. And I am so happy that DOMA has been repealed so we can be able to fulfill not just the joys of marriage, but the responsibilities of marriage.”

Scenes from Wednesday's rally in The Grove.

State Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, said he was in court when he found out about DOMA. When he shared the news with another lawyer, that person told him, “what ya’ll don’t understand is that’s not the highest law of the land – you have another person to answer to and his name is God.

“What that did was make me sit back and take a deep breath and remember kind of where we’re at in the struggle,” said Colona, one of two openly gay members of the Missouri General Assembly. “Today is a great day to celebrate and we should do that. But we also have to realize that the struggle’s not over with, that this is just one small step in the battle.

“So let’s take some time today to slap each other on the back to say congratulations, thank you and share it with the ones that we love,” he added. “But tomorrow when we wake up, let’s remember that the battle’s not over and we have to keep marching forward.”

Beacon reporters Robert Koenig and Jo Mannies contributed information for this story.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.