Supreme Court Rules Gay Marriage Is a Nationwide Right

In 5-4 decision, justices say Constitution guarantees marriage equality to gay and lesbian couples


Updated June 26, 2015 11:01 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court on Friday ruled same-sex partners have a constitutional right to marry, sweeping away state bans on gay unions and extending marriage equality nationwide.

The 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges struck down restrictions on same-sex marriage in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee that a Cincinnati-based federal appeals court upheld last year. It also validated a series of lower court opinions that expanded the institution across most of the nation since 2012, following an earlier Supreme Court holding requiring federal recognition of gay and lesbian marriages in states that had chosen to authorize the practice.

The opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy caps a rapid shift in legal and societal acceptance of same-sex marriage over the past decade. It also marks a revolution in American society, one that in the course of a generation saw gay rights move to the front line from the fringes of a national debate over the meaning of equality.

Justice Kennedy is joined in the majority by the court’s four liberal justices— Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayorand Elena Kagan.

Friday’s ruling marks the fourth major gay rights ruling by Justice Kennedy. As at times in the past, he used sweeping language in describing the outcome.

“As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage,” Justice Kennedy wrote in the 28-page majority opinion. “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. The four conservatives filed four separate dissenting opinions, each of which some of the others joined.

“If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas. “But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”

Massachusetts in 2003 became the first U.S. state to recognize gay marriages, a development that led to some states recognizing the practice and dozens of states amending state constitutions to forbid it.

Those constitutional bans began to fall after the 2013 U.S. v. Windsor ruling, which invalidated provisions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The opinion invoked two strands of reasoning: one indicating Congress should honor states’ definitions of marriage; another suggesting the Defense of Marriage Act served no purpose other than to stigmatize and demean same-sex relationships.

Lower courts overwhelmingly read the Windsor opinion as requiring them to strike down as unconstitutional state marriage restrictions, ending bans in more than a dozen states.

Ahead of the ruling, same-sex marriage was legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia. That includes Alabama, where a federal judge has ruled the state must recognize same-sex marriages but put the decision on hold pending the high court’s ruling on the matter.

The appeal before the Supreme Court was brought by 16 gay couples challenging marriage bans in the four states. The couples argued the U.S. Constitution entitles them to unions on the same terms as heterosexuals, and that state restrictions hurt them financially and demean their dignity by denying their unions legal recognition.

The four states had argued the courts should defer to the political process, leaving the decision of whether to recognize same-sex unions to the legislatures of each state.

While the ruling deals directly with marriage, it could also lead to changes in laws that can be read to allow discrimination based on sexual orientation. For instance, future legal contests may determine whether tax-exempt religious schools can reject gays and lesbians, and whether private businesses can cite religious reasons for refusing service based on sexual orientation.

Though the Supreme Court has been broadly supportive both of religious expression and gay and lesbian equality, the ultimate resolution of such conflicts remained unclear.

As news of the ruling spread outside the court, gay-rights supporters who had gathered outside the Supreme Court began to celebrate. Cheers erupted and people embraced and began chanting “U.S.A.”

“I was speechless, completely, at first,” said Jennifer Davis of Michigan, who’s been married for three years. “I still need to sit down and read the opinions myself.”

“This means everything to us. He’s from Texas,” Dave Johnston said of his fiancé, Jeff Taylor. “When we visit his family, it’s important to know that we’re still going to be married—no state can take that away from us.”

The two men were engaged two months ago and plan to marry in D.C.

People immediately began reading excerpts of the decision on their phones and snapping photos of themselves on court grounds. Signs, of course, were in full supply, including one reading “more weddings = more cake.”

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