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State LGBT advocates pleased with Supreme Court rulings

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Legally married gay couples have the same rights as any married couple in the eyes of the federal government, according to a U.S. Supreme Court decision announced Wednesday.

West Virginia advocates leading the charge for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in the state were ecstatic with Supreme Court rulings that favor same-sex marriage, but said there's still a long way to go before LGBT people in West Virginia have the same rights as everyone else.

Local opponents of same sex marriage, including at least two of West Virginia's U.S representatives, voiced disappointment in the court's decision.

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (also known as DOMA) was unconstitutional because it is "a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment."

In another 5-4 ruling, the court determined it did not have standing to rule on a case concerning California's "Proposition 8." The proposition banned same-sex marriages, but a California court struck it down.

The Supreme Court ruled it did not have standing to rule on the lower court's decision, opening the door for same-sex unions to soon resume in the state.

Neither case itself has a direct, immediate impact on West Virginia, said Neil Berch, an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University.

The provision of DOMA that says states don't have to recognize same-sex marriages issued in other states stands, Berch said. However, there are benefits available now for LGBT couples in West Virginia.

"It certainly might provide incentive for WV same-sex couples to go to other states and get married (just like going to Las Vegas for a wedding)," Berch wrote in an email.

"They would then get treated as married under federal law -- though it should be noted that in some cases, when incomes are relatively equal, getting married actually raises your income taxes."

Gay marriage in West Virginia

On the last day of regular session in 2000, the West Virginia Legislature passed a measure banning recognition of same-sex marriage. The measure came at the request of then-Gov. Cecil Underwood, a Republican, with only three lawmakers from either chamber voting against it.

The measure changed state law so that "marriage is designed to be a loving and lifelong union between a woman and a man" now appears on every application for a marriage license. The law also made sure West Virginia doesn't recognize marriage licenses granted in other states to same-sex couples.

Wednesday's ruling doesn't affect that law. It does provide more than 1,000 rights and privileges recognized by the federal government for married couples. 

That's worthwhile, said Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson.

"Obviously I'm excited and pleased that the highest court in the land takes the Constitution seriously," Skinner said. "The Constitution really means 'Justice for all.'"

The attorney is the first openly gay delegate to serve in West Virginia's Legislature. He's also the former leader of Fairness West Virginia, an LGBT equal rights advocacy group.

Skinner was already on Capitol Hill for a business meeting Wednesday morning and said he was able to make it over to the steps of the Supreme Court in time to hear the decisions announced.

"It's safe to say it's about as exciting as you can get when people are learning they have fundamental rights upheld by the constitution," Skinner said.

Some of the rights now afforded by the federal government to legally married same-sex couples are well known, said Casey Willits, Fairness West Virginia executive director.

There are tax and social security benefits, but there are many more, he said. For example, legally married same-sex couples cannot be forced to testify against one another in a federal criminal proceeding, Willits said

Willits and Skinner were happy with the decision. But they said making same-sex marriage legal on the state level is not their No. 1 priority at the moment.

"The biggest thing though, this (ruling) does not change the shameful fact that 57,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender West Virginians still face discrimination at work and at home," Willits said.

Right now it's legal in West Virginia to fire or evict someone because they are gay. During this year's legislative session, Skinner introduced legislation that would make that illegal. The bill gained plenty of attention but little traction among lawmakers.

The bill never made it out of a minor committee after it was not taken up at Skinner's request. Skinner gave an impassioned speech from the floor of the House the day it became clear the bill would not pass, and said Wednesday he'll introduce it again this year.

"Even though this is incredibly good news, we can't forget that every day it's bad news for LGBT people in West Virginia who want to be safe in their homes and at work," Skinner said.

Skinner and Willits recently thanked U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., for his recent decision to sign on as a co-sponsor of the Equal Non-Discrimination Act on the federal level.

Wednesday, the senator was the only member of the West Virginia delegation to publicly support the Supreme Court decision.

"As I've said in the past, our younger generations have grown up in a more equal society and they have rightly pushed us to think more about what it means for Americans to be created equal," Rockefeller said in an emailed statement.

"Today the Supreme Court spoke to that question when they ruled the federal government cannot discriminate against people who want to marry because of gender. Churches in our nation do not have to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs, but we live in a country that holds equality as a core principle for its citizens and today's decision reflects this thinking."

That's a decidedly different stance than he took in 1996, when DOMA was before Congress. Rockefeller and the other four West Virginia members of the national delegation -- Sen. Robert Byrd and Reps. Alan Mollohan, Bob Wise and Nick Rahall, all Democrats -- voted for the measure.

Rahall said Wednesday he's always advocated for the definition of marriage as a union between a man and woman, and nothing in the court's decision changed his mind.

"I will continue to support legislation, including a Constitutional Amendment, in defense of traditional marriage," Rahall said.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said he was disappointed the court struck down a law that was passed with bipartisan support in Congress, adding that he supports a traditional view of marriage. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also pointed out the facts of who supported DOMA, but gave no indication as to how she felt about the court's decision.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is one of three Democrats in the Senate to not publicly endorse same-sex marriage. He didn't change his mind Wednesday.

"I have always believed in traditional marriage based on my religious and personal beliefs," Manchin said in an emailed statement.

"While I disagree with today's ruling, I appreciate that the Court did not infringe on the states' 10th amendment right to define marriage as only between a man and a woman."

Locally, the Family Policy Council of West Virginia sent out a press release in opposition of the DOMA ruling. Jeremiah Dys, president of the conservative Christian organization, said the court "avoided the error of finding a constitutional right to the redefinition of marriage" but missed the mark on DOMA.

"In spite of the Supreme Court's decision today, marriage remains the union of husband and wife -- a timeless, universal institution that connects children to their mother and father," Dys said in the release.

"The Supreme Court got it wrong to invalidate portions of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)."

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.

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