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