High court ruling could affect NC same-sex marriage ban

A UNC law professor says the language in the decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act could set the stage for future challenges to North Carolina's year-old constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

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Bruce Mildwurf
RALEIGH, N.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court rulings Wednesday on federal and California laws on same-sex marriage have no immediate impact on North Carolina's ban on such unions.

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law said, however, that the language in one ruling could set the stage for future challenges to the state's year-old constitutional amendment that recognizes marriages only between one man and one woman.

The court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, allowing couples married in states that recognize gay marriage to receive federal tax, health care and pension benefits. Meanwhile, the court sidestepped ruling on Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in California, saying it lacks jurisdiction.

The Prop 8 decision means a lower court ruling overturning the law remains in place, allowing gay marriages to resume in California, but it doesn't change laws on same-sex marriages in other states, including North Carolina.

UNC law professor Maxine Eichner said Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion in the DOMA case states that the law passed in 1996 violates the Constitution's equal protection guarantees. Because state constitutions cannot allow something deemed unconstitutional at the federal level, she said, gay marriage bans in North Carolina and elsewhere could be challenged.

"It struck DOMA down on equality grounds, and that has much broader implications," Eichner said. "What this does, it sets up the next wave of challenges to states who ban same-sex marriage."

Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Diocese of Raleigh said he also believes the ruling opens the door to future legal challenges.

"The decision of the court will contribute to the unraveling of what has been a vital cornerstone of our society, the protection of the rights and responsibilities of husbands and wives to one another and to the children they bring into the world," Burbidge said in a statement.

In the short run, Eichner said, the DOMA ruling allows same-sex couples in North Carolina who were receiving Social Security benefits in a state that recognized their marriage to once again receive them. Also, she said, a North Carolina resident can sponsor a same-sex spouse for citizenship if they were married in a state that recognized their union.

Gay advocates in North Carolina said the DOMA ruling gives them hope and a goal, if few legal rights now.

"The impact in North Carolina is going to be the inspiration and hope and empowerment of this community," said James Miller, executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh.

"Because (gay marriage) is not legal here, we can't use those rights, however, again, that gives us something to fight for," Miller said. "It gives us somewhere to go; it gives us a target. ... We have something to work toward now."

Ann Marie Sugrim celebrated the decision with the partner she hopes to someday marry.

"We've made history, and I've been a part of history in my lifetime," Sugrim said. "I could not have asked for anything more. I can die happy."

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