For many of Colorado's gay couples who obtained civil unions last month, these court rulings open new possibilities. 

(Photo: CPR/Anna Panoka)
Wednesday's U.S. Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage won’t have a direct impact on Colorado law but that doesn’t mean the rulings, which overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act and cleared the way for gay marriage to resume in California, won’t be felt here, too. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the DOMA ruling means gay couples who live in Colorado but marry elsewhere are now eligible for all federal benefits. Under current law, many federal benefits are awarded based on where the couple lives, not where they married. It's still unclear how the ruling will be applied.

Nailbiter Ruling for Some Couples

Meet two Coloradans whose lives will definitely change because of the court rulings: Aaron Diestel and his husband James Hall. The two married in California five years ago and now live in Greeley. With the Supreme Court striking down DOMA, some of the federal benefits they gained in California are now set to follow them to their new home.

"I’m just ecstatic about it," Hall said Wednesday morning. "I think it’s just amazing. It really was a nailbiter, because we didn’t know what way it was going."

It's still somewhat unclear exactly which things will go Hall and Deistel's way; some federal agencies, like the Social Security Administration, judge who's married based on where they live, not where they celebrated the union. In those cases, Colorado couples will still be cut off from full federal benefits.

But all it would take to change those policies is an executive order from the President. If that happens, Hall is really hoping the President includes the IRS. Being able to file jointly as a married couple could allow him and Diestal to save big on things like their mortgage interest deduction.

"That’s going to be a huge deal for us," Hall said.

While the practical benefits are nice, Hall's real excitement on Wednesday was for winning the symbolic battle to be recognized by the federal government.  That recognition is currently barred by Colorado's constitution, which limits marriage to only between a man and a woman. 

Challenge Planned for Colorado Marriage Law

Colorado's definition of marriage could change, though, if University of Denver law professor Kris Miccio has her way. Miccio and her partner plan to marry in New York state this fall and then challenge Colorado's marriage amendment as an unconstitutional violation of their rights. 

"That will be our holiday present... to the state of Colorado," Miccio said Wednesday, "and my sense is we will be joined by other couples, so I think it will be a class action suit."

The Supreme Court didn’t give Miccio much direct precedent to rely on when it struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. But Miccio believes the language of the majority opinion does give her new arguments to make. 

She’ll face a skeptical opponent in Attorney General John Suthers, who says he’s ready to go to bat for Colorado’s marriage law.

Suthers, a Republican, is highly critical of the California officials, whose refusal to defend Proposition 8 was key to its defeat.  He says an Attorney General's job is to defend the laws of the state, regardless of personal opinion.

"What you want your Attorney General first and foremost to be is a lawyer and a politician only secondarily," Suthers said. "Can you imagine if I said, 'I don’t like the gun law... I’m not going to defend it?'"

"They've Pushed a Snowball Down a Hill"

While the Supreme Court didn’t give gay rights activists all they wanted in Wednesday's rulings, the decisions were an even harder blow to supporters of traditional marriage.

State Senator Kevin Lundberg [R-Berthoud], who's made the defense of heterosexual marriage a big part of his political career, said he's "appalled" by the court's action.

"I believe they’ve taken marriage and really pulled the plug on it," he said. "They’ve pushed a snowball down a hill that’s not going to stop until we won’t know what marriage looks like."

Across the aisle, openly gay Senator Pat Steadman [D-Denver], one of the architects of this year's civil unions law, thinks that snowball is rolling in the right direction, toward legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

"Things are just moving so fast," he said. "I think it's inevitable that we get there. How quickly, what form does it look like, it's too soon to tell. But I'm pretty confident I know how this story ends."

One way this story could end is with the issue of same sex marriage going back to Colorado's voters, who closed the door on the idea in 2006 when they defined marriage as between a man and a woman. But so far politicians like Steadman and gay rights organizations like One Colorado aren't going that far.

With the highest court in the land weighing in on, but not settling, the issue of same sex marriage, it seems likely the judicial system will continue to be the venue for future fights as well, at least in Colorado.