Supreme Court rejects appeals, clears way for gay marriage

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for an immediate expansion of same-sex marriage by unexpectedly and tersely turning away appeals from five states seeking to prohibit gay and lesbian unions, including Indiana. 

Without comment, the justices brought an end to same-sex marriage delays in the Hoosier state and four others — Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. 

Clerks in the northwest Indiana counties of Lake and Porter told the Chicago Sun-Times they were waiting to hear from their legal counsel before issuing same-sex marriage licenses. 

“Nothing’s come down to us officially,” said Marilyn Hrnjak, chief deputy of the Lake County Clerk’s office in Indiana. 

The Porter County Clerk’s office is also waiting to hear from the state’s Attorney General, an official said.

But Paul Castillo of Lambda Legal, the lead attorney in the lawsuit that challenged Indiana’s same-sex marriage ban, said he expects Indiana to “fully and quickly” comply.

“Marriage equality is the law in Indiana,” Castillo said. 

The court’s order effectively makes gay marriage legal in 30 states. Couples in six other states — Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming — should be able to get married in short order. Those states would be bound by the same appellate rulings that were put on hold pending the Supreme Court’s review.

No other state cases were currently pending with the high court, but the justices stopped short of resolving for now the question of same-sex marriage nationwide. Still, those 11 states would bring to 30 the number of states where same-sex marriage is legal, plus the District of Columbia. Challenges are pending in every state.

Jeffrey M. Shaman, a law professor at DePaul University, said the Supreme Court’s decision not to tackle the appeals is “very surprising. But he said the court could be sending a signal that it agrees with the lower courts’ rulings.

Justices also might be compromising, given that any definitive ruling could end in a 5-4 vote in either direction, Shaman speculated.

“Perhaps the court is doing this because there’s such a split on the court,” he said. Shaman also said there is a “clear trend” by the courts toward recognizing that individuals have a fundamental constitutional right to be married.

“I think that the Supreme Court’s decision today, this morning, is another very significant step in that direction,” Shaman said. 

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn applauded that decision in a written statement Monday morning. 

“When I signed the Illinois Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act nearly a year ago, we set an example for states across the country, and we knew we were on the right side of history,” Quinn said. “Each state that lifts the unconstitutional ban against marriage equality and allows couples to marry freely and equally is another victory for our entire country.”

Brandon Wagman, chief executive officer and co-founder of Highland-based Rainbow Serenity, said he was “thrilled” to hear about the Supreme Court’s decision. Though he said the group does not get involved in politics, he said it supports marriage equality and tries to bring the gay and straight communities together. He also said four of the seven members of its volunteer staff were married out of state.

“I’m legally married in Iowa,” Wagman said. “That would mean that my marriage would be legal in Indiana. I’m definitely thrilled about it.”

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But Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, called on the high court to “finish the job.” He said 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.”

Ed Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an opponent of same-sex marriage, also chastised the court for its “irresponsible denial of review in the cases.” Whelan said it is hard to see how the court could eventually rule in favor of same-sex marriage bans after having allowed so many court decisions striking down those bans to remain in effect.

Still, Castillo said the Supreme Court often takes on issues that prompt conflicting rulings by lower courts. That’s not how the gay marriage debate has played out, Castillo said.

“Here, it’s quite clear that there is no conflict,” Castillo said. 

Nonetheless, experts and advocates on both sides of the issue had expected the justices to step in and decide gay marriage cases this term.

The justices have an obligation to settle an issue of such national importance, not abdicate that responsibility to lower court judges, those advocates said. Opting out of hearing the cases leaves those lower court rulings in place.

Two other appeals courts, in Cincinnati and San Francisco, could issue decisions any time in same-sex marriage cases. Judges in the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit who are weighing pro-gay marriage rulings in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, appeared more likely to rule in favor of state bans than did the 9th Circuit judges in San Francisco, who are considering Idaho and Nevada restrictions on marriage.

It takes just four of the nine justices to vote to hear a case, but it takes a majority of at least five for an eventual ruling. Monday’s opaque order did not indicate how the justices voted on whether to hear the appeals.

MARK SHERMAN, Associated Press

Contributing: Jon Seidel, Sun-Times

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