OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Supporters of gay marriage in Oklahoma praised Wednesday's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a provision of a federal law denying federal benefits to married gay couples, but opponents also found a silver lining in the ruling.
In a 5-4 ruling, the nation's highest court wiped away part of a federal anti-gay marriage law, the Defense of Marriage Act, that has prevented legally married same-sex couples from receiving tax, health and pension benefits. In a separate 5-4 decision, the court issued a technical ruling that left in place a lower court's declaration that a gay marriage ban in California is unconstitutional.
While supporters of same-sex marriage declared the rulings a victory, the court did not specifically address the validity of gay marriage bans in roughly three dozen states, including Oklahoma.
"The Court's decisions confirmed that it is up to the states to decide how to define marriage, not the federal government," Attorney General Scott Pruitt said in a statement. "As a result, Oklahoma's constitutional provision that defines marriage in Oklahoma as between a man and a woman remains valid."
More than 75 percent of Oklahoma voters in 2004 approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage after lawmakers placed the issue on the ballot. State Question 711, which codified the ban into the Oklahoma Constitution, defines marriage as between one man and one woman. It prohibits giving the benefits of marriage to unmarried couples and says same-sex marriages in other states are not valid in Oklahoma.
While Wednesday's ruling does not overturn Oklahoma's ban, legal experts say the ruling clearly benefits gay couples living in Oklahoma who are legally married in the dozen states that allow gay marriage.
"For couples lawfully married under state law, including couples who have moved into Oklahoma from any of the dozen states that currently recognize same-sex marriages, they are now entitled to equal treatment under federal law," said Joseph Thai, a constitutional law professor at the University of Oklahoma.
Former state Sen. James Williamson, a Tulsa Republican who sponsored the measure seeking a statewide vote to ban gay marriage, said he was relieved the court didn't take a broader ruling against states that have put in place laws that define marriage as between one man and one woman.
"It's my belief their ruling indicates, at least at this time, they're not willing to rule that there is some sort of national constitutional right for homosexuals to marry," Williamson said.
But Williamson acknowledged that support for gay marriage appears to be growing, especially among younger people, and that he doubts a similar state question would pass in Oklahoma with such a wide margin of support.
Scott Hamilton, an Oklahoma man who married his partner of more than 20 years in Connecticut in 2009, said he believes Wednesday's decisions by the Supreme Court will ultimately lead to more challenges at the state level.
"As is often the case with the Supreme Court, change happens in increments," said Hamilton, the executive director of the Oklahoma City-based Cimarron Alliance Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports gay rights. "I think people will be empowered now, and not just gay people, but people who love gay people. People who will stand up and say it's just not right to discriminate against people because of who you love."
Changing Oklahoma's prohibitions on same-sex marriage would almost certainly have to be done through court challenges, since there appears to be little appetite among the Republican-led Oklahoma Legislature to embrace gay rights. Last session, the Oklahoma House voted 84-0 for a resolution to reaffirm marriage as a union between a man and a woman and to support the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
And Gov. Mary Fallin on Wednesday reiterated her opposition to gay marriage.
"Like the vast majority of Oklahomans, I support traditional marriage," Fallin said in a statement. "I do not and will not support expanding the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples."
Oklahoma's entire congressional delegation, with the exception of the lone Democrat at the time, Bill Brewster, supported DOMA in 1996, including the state's two current U.S. Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn, who was a House member at the time. U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, the only other current member of Congress from Oklahoma who was in office in 1996, also supported DOMA and issued a statement describing the Supreme Court's decision as "troubling."
"I was a co-sponsor and supported DOMA when it passed in 1996, and I continue to believe marriage should be defined between a man and a woman," Lucas said.