Wednesday's widely hailed pair of decisions involving gay marriage might not be as far-reaching as some advocates are asserting. The court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act on the basis of unequal treatment of married couples by the federal government. The ruling prohibits the government from denying federal benefits to legally married couples because they are in a same-sex marriage. The ruling does not address the legality of same-sex marriage, only the federal government's treatment of it. State bans on same-sex marriage are left untouched by the ruling.
The California Proposition 8 ruling also does not address the legality of same-sex marriage. This case was narrowly decided not on its merits but on the eligibility of the persons bringing the appeal of an earlier court decision. The state of California declined to appeal the trial court ruling that threw out the results of a statewide referendum banning gay marriage. This was essentially a ruling on a technicality: The court found that the appellants did not have standing to appeal the case to the federal court; therefore, the trial court ruling stands. Left unanswered is whether the trial court judge had the authority to overturn a statewide referendum in a state that provides citizen access to the legislative process through direct referendums.
The Prop 8 ruling applies only the California. Gay marriage will again be legal in California, but the larger, national issues involving gay marriage remain unresolved. The tide may be turning on gay marriage, but Wednesday's rulings do not constitute a 180-degree turn, at least not yet.