The path toward marriage equality has been long, tenuous, and emotional for many people. Until today, only twenty countries worldwide—including Spain, Belgium, Ireland, Canada, South Africa, France, and some others as well as several territories—legally recognized same-sex, or gay, marriage. In the United States, same-sex marriage was federally illegal until 2004, at which time a number of state and local jurisdictions began to recognize same-sex marriage due to changes in legislation, court rulings, tribal council rulings, and popular vote in referenda.
From 2004 onward, state and circuit-level lawsuits, such as as Bostic v. Shaeffer, resulted in a number of states refusing to uphold bans of same-sex marriage. Until today, there were 38 states in that allowed gay marriage to some degree with three of those states having some level of restriction. However, as a result of this ruling on a landmark case, the Supreme Court decided today, on June 26, 2015, to recognize same-sex marriage as a constitutional and civil right under the Fourteenth Amendment, making it the twenty-first country or territory in the world to do so.
Same-sex marriage now a constitutional right for LGBT community
Today’s ruling comes after decades of litigation and activism. The lawsuit of Obergefell v. Hodges—which itself was a consolidation of three separate cases pertaining to the recognition of same-sex marriage: Tanco v. Haslam (Tennessee), DeBoer v. Snyder (Michigan), and Bourke v. Beshear (Kentucky)—held its first oral arguments on April 28 of this year. Almost evenly split between those in favor and those against the legalization of same-sex marriage, the ruling came in at 5-4, allowing same-sex couples to marry nationwide while establishing a new civil right and giving advocates of gay equality a historic victory.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the liberals who voted in favor of marriage equality, said, “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were. Their hope,” Kennedy wrote, “is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Justice Kennedy has been the author of all three of the Supreme Court’s previous gay rights landmarks. Today’s victory came exactly two years after his majority opinion in United States v. Windsor, rejecting the federal law that had denied benefits to married same-sex couples in the states in which those marriages were recognized, which had come exactly 12 years after his majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, the lawsuit that effectively decriminalized gay sex.
“The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” Justice Kennedy wrote on Friday. “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.”
Justice Antonin Scalia, who bitterly dissented from today’s ruling, blasted the Court’s “threat to American democracy.”
“If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal,” Justice Scalia wrote. “Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”
There has been growing support for the marriage equality movement in recent years with roughly two-thirds of Americans currently in favor of same-sex marriage. When the results of the ruling were revealed, same-sex supporters numbering in the hundreds swarmed the plaza and sidewalk outside the Supreme Court, waving their rainbow flags and banners displaying the Human Rights Campaign’s equal sign, which is the symbol of the gay rights movement. “Love has won,” the crowd chanted as courtroom witnesses threw up their arms and cheered in victory. In what ended up being a rather emotional moment for many, these individuals began to sing the National Anthem, wildly clapping after they sung of the “land of the free.”
President Obama called the case’s lead plaintiff Jim Obergefell after the ruling in order to congratulate him. The full ruling, which renders state government unable to ban same-sex couples from the constitutional right of marriage, can be read in full here.
Fourteen persistent same-sex couples
The Court was confronted with two issues over the course of the proceedings: Whether states should be able to ban same-sex marriage and whether states should be required to recognize marriages performed in other states. Michigan Special Assistant Attorney General John Bursch defended the same-sex marriage bans of four states by arguing that the issue wasn’t about how marriage should be defined, but rather who has the right to define it, believing that it’s a decision that should be left to local jurisdictions. After a number of states had overturned state-level bans on same-sex marriage, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the bans, which led to several lawsuits filed by individuals who sought the right and recognition of same-sex marriage.
There were fourteen couples and two widowers who challenged the bans on same-sex marriage. Arguing that marriage is a fundamental freedom and right for all people that should not be left to popular vote, attorneys Mark Bonauto and Doug Hallward-Driemeier presented their clients’ case before the Supreme Court.
At the oral arguments in April of this year, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. addressed the justices to say, “Gay and lesbian people are equal. It is simply untenable—untenable—to suggest that they can be denied the right of equal participation in an institution of marriage, or that they can be required to wait until the majority decides that it is ready to treat gay and lesbian people as equals.”
Lead plaintiff in the case Jim Obergefell married his spouse John Arthur in 2013, mere months before Arthur died. The Ohio couple had traveled to Maryland on a medical jet in order to get married when Arthur became gravely ill. Upon Arthur’s death, Obergefell fought to be recognized as Arthur’s spouse on his death certificate.
The Michigan plaintiffs in DeBoer v. Snyder are April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, two nurses and foster parents from the Detroit area. The lesbian couple was unable to jointly adopt four special-needs newborns that had either been abandoned or surrendered at birth due to the Michigan adoption code prohibiting unmarried couples from adopting.
Tennessee plaintiffs Sergeant Ijpe Dekoe and Thomas Kostura had married in New York in 2011 before the Army relocated the couple to Tennessee where same-sex marriage was banned and their marriage not legally recognized.
Marriage equality and the 2016 presidential election
Republicans seeking the White House in the 2016 election have been unsure of how best to proceed after this historical ruling. More liberal-minded Republican candidates, which includes former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, urge their colleagues to focus on protecting “religious freedom” while Ohio Governor John Kasich is urging the Republican party to simply respect the ruling and abandon the matter entirely.
In a statement responding to the ruling, Bush said, “In a country as diverse as ours, good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side. It is now crucial that as a country we protect religious freedom and the right of conscience and also not discriminate.”
On the other hand, staunch conservatives such as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have suggested the conservatives stand and fight by pushing for an amendment that will effectively reverse the ruling, banning gay marriage at the federal level once again. “I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch. We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat,” Huckabee said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates responded quickly and positively with many of them expressing their universal elation on social media. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was “proud” of the ruling while former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley tweeted a photo of the family who were the plaintiffs of the case that led to the recognition of same-sex marriage in Maryland.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) June 26, 2015
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) June 26, 2015
For once, I’m incredibly proud of my country. I’ve been in a same-sex relationship for almost two years now and although my state (West Virginia) and his (Virginia) have had marriage equality since this past fall, it’s nice to know that every same-sex couple in the country, no matter where they live, now has this basic human right. This is a momentous time in history and in a way, this ruling makes me more optimistic for the future.
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