A 5-4 decision delivered by the US Supreme Court on Friday has established that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states, effectively ending state-level bans on gay marriage across the country.
The decision in the case Obergefell v. Hodges was based on suits filed by couples in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee — four of the 14 states in the nation that do not permit same-sex unions.
Obergefell v. Hodges originally centered on the right of Jim Obergefell, who married his partner in Maryland, a state where gay marriage is legal, to have that union recognized in his hometown of Ohio, where it is not. After Obergefell's husband, John Arthur, died of the incurable neurological disease ALS just months after the wedding in 2013, Ohio refused to recognize Obergefell's name on his spouse's death certificate, leading him to challenge the decision.
When the case reached the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals, a judge ruled against Obergefell, and the four cases from different states amalgamated under Obergefell v. Hodges to appear before the Supreme Court.
Friday's ruling will mandate that all of these states, located in the South and Midwest, lift their bans on same-sex marriage. Gay marriage is already legal in 36 states across the country, as well as in the District of Columbia.
Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the majority opinion, which he has also done in three earlier gay rights cases. Two of these rulings were also delivered on June 26, making the date an auspicious one for gay rights. In the Lawrence vs. Texas decision of 2003, the court struck down various state laws criminalizing gay sex. In 2013, in US vs. Windsor, the court struck down a portion of a federal anti-gay marriage law.
The third Supreme Court ruling related to gay rights came down in 1996 in Romer v. Evans, in which the court ruled in a 6-3 vote against a Colorado law barring local governments from passing legislation providing protections for gays and lesbians.
"Same-sex couples are denied the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage and are consigned to an instability many opposite-sex couples would find intolerable," Justice Kennedy wrote in Friday's majority opinion. "It is demeaning to lock same-sex couples out of a central institution of the Nation's society, for they too may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage. The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest."
The majority held that state laws being challenged by the plaintiffs limited the liberty of same-sex couples and undermined the principles of equality enshrined in the Constitution.
"The challenged laws burden the liberty of same-sex couples, and they abridge central precepts of equality," Justice Kennedy wrote. "The marriage laws at issue are in essence unequal: Same-sex couples are denied benefits afforded opposite-sex couples and are barred from exercising a fundamental right. Especially against a long history of disapproval of their relationships, this denial works a grave and continuing harm, serving to disrespect and subordinate gays and lesbians."
The Fourteenth Amendment, passed during Reconstruction following the Civil War, established that no state can pass or enforce laws that limit the civil liberties of American citizens, or deny equal protection of the law to people within its jurisdiction. The court found that the gay marriage bans in the various states violate this principle.
"It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage," the decision said, referring to the plaintiffs. "Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope 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."
President Barack Obama took to Twitter just minutes after the decision was announced, calling the ruling a "big step" towards equality.
Obama spoke from the White House rose garden following the ruling, saying the decision will end the "patchwork system" the country currently has in regards to same-sex marriage, meaning couples can be reassured that a marriage seen as legitimate in the eyes of the law in one state will also be recognized in another. The president called it a victory for the plaintiffs and their families, as well as for their allies, friends, and supporters.
"This ruling is a victory for America," he said. "This decision affirms what millions of americans already believed in their hearts. When all americans are treated as equal we are all more free."
Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr. in his dissent, with the four conservative judges writing three opinions between them.
In the dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Roberts discussed powers granted to judges in the constitution to determine "what a law is, not what it should be." He noted that while arguments in favor of same-sex marriage might be compelling, the legal arguments to allow it are not.
"The fundamental right to marry does not include a right to make a state change its definition of marriage," he wrote. "The people of a State are free to expand marriage to include same-sex couples, or to retain the historic definition."
The chief justice called the decision to mandate each state to recognize same-sex marriage an "extraordinary step," while saying the majority's approach to the decision was "deeply disheartening."
"Understand well what this dissent is about: It is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples," Roberts wrote.
"It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law," he continued. "The Constitution leaves no doubt about the answer."
Joining the chief justice's opinion in full, Justice Scalia wrote a separate opinion, declaring that he wanted to "call attention to this Court's threat to American democracy."
"Until the courts put a stop to it, public debate over same-sex marriage displayed American democracy at its best," he wrote. "But the Court ends this debate, in an opinion lacking even a thin veneer of law."
He called the character of today's voting body "strikingly unrepresentative" and classified the decision as social upheaval. Scalia wrote that this would be irrelevant had the court members acted as judges and answered legal questions about Americans ratifying a constitutional provision that proscribes the traditional definition of marriage.
"But of course the Justices in today's majority are not voting on that basis; they say they are not," he wrote. "And to allow the policy question of same-sex marriage to be considered and resolved by a select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine is to violate a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: no social transformation without representation."
Scalia's dissent discussed the nature of marriage in respect to freedoms like expression, intimacy, and spirituality.
"And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage," he wrote. "Ask the nearest hippie. Expression, sure enough, is a freedom, but anyone in a long-lasting marriage will attest that that happy state constricts, rather than expands, what one can prudently say."