The Supreme Court's decision on Wednesday to strike down a key provision in the Defense of Marriage Act is making waves across the country, including in Aiken County.
Voting 5-4, a deeply divided court threw out part of the law that denied hundreds of federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
“DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected by others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
'An enormous victory and a joyous day'
Ann Willbrand is a founding member of the Aiken chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays and on the executive committee for S.C. Equality.
“This is an enormous victory and a joyous day for loving, married same-sex couples and their families, and for equal justice under the law,” she said of the court's ruling. “Today, the Supreme Court affirmed that all loving and committed couples who marry deserve equal legal respect and treatment.”
Willbrand said it's not clear how the ruling will affect couples who marry in states where same-sex marriage is legal but who then move to states where it is not legal.
Teresa Harper, chair of the Aiken County Democratic Party, applauded the court's decision.
“I'm glad they've overturned DOMA; now, we have to get marriage equality in South Carolina,” she said, adding that it “might be a while,” but she's confident it will come.
“For us, it's such an evangelical state,” she said. “I know there's those and religions that aren't going to agree, but people are coming around.”
Willbrand said the fight isn't over for marriage equality. In 2006, South Carolina voters approved Amendment 1, which made it unconstitutional to recognize or perform same-sex marriages or civil unions in the state, by a margin of 78 percent.
According to Willbrand, exit polling by a USC Aiken professor in 2006 and 2012 revealed the tide may be turning.
“His data from Aiken County indicate that there is a change of heart and mind, and that if that amendment had been on the 2012 ballot, it still would have passed, but by a smaller margin,” she said. “At this point, we in South Carolina certainly celebrate the good news for California, but it means we have a lot more work to do to make sure marriage equality is the law of the land everywhere.”
'Culture of marriage … kicking into high gear'
Diane Barnes, chair of the Aiken County Republican Party, said she was disappointed by the court's decision, but was even more concerned about the ruling on Proposition 8. In that, defenders of California's same-sex marriage ban had no standing in court.
“I'm more concerned California is refusing to honor a voter-passed referendum,” she said. “It means elected officials in California have more authority than the voters. They totally silenced the people's voices.”
Barnes said the Supreme Court's ruling doesn't mean “our work is over.”
“It's quite the contrary; we built a culture of marriage and it's kicking into high gear,” she said. “Marriage is a union of a man and a woman bound together by the grace of God, and obviously it's not properly understood.”
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a statement that he was a strong supporter of DOMA, and that he still believes in the traditional definition of marriage.
“South Carolinians have repeatedly said that is the definition they support as well,” he said. “I was disappointed with today's outcome, but respect the Court's decision. One key point, today's Supreme Court ruling will not change South Carolina law and I will continue to fight for and defend the traditional definition of marriage.”
Congressman Joe Wilson shared a similar sentiment.
“As a firm believer that marriage should be defined as one man and one woman, I am very discouraged by the Supreme Court's decision to undermine the sanctity of marriage and overturn the bipartisan-supported Defense of Marriage Act,” he said in a statement. “The national debate over marriage is not over. I am very pleased that today's Proposition 8 decision grants each sovereign state the authority to determine its own marriage requirements.”
S.C. Sen. Shane Massey declined to comment for this story. Messages left for Sen. Tom Young Jr. and state Rep. Bill Clyburn were not immediately returned.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.