Same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states, following a landmark and long-awaited Supreme Court decision Friday.
In a resounding opinion that caps a remarkable transformation of the social, legal and political landscapes, the divided high court overturned marriage restrictions in Kentucky and other states and ensured marriage equality for gay couples nationwide.
“Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Flourishing with paeans to what Kennedy called the “transcendent importance of marriage,” the 5-4 majority opinion concluded the Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantees of due process and equal protection ensures that states must perform same-sex marriages and also recognize marriages performed elsewhere.
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Marriage restrictions imposed by states, Kennedy wrote, have “the effect of teaching that gays and lesbians are unequal in important respects.” The only way to unravel the court’s action would be to amend the U.S. Constitution, a long shot that has fallen from political favor.
“The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,” Kennedy wrote.
President Barack Obama, taking to the Rose Garden for the second straight day to hail a Supreme Court decision, declared the marriage ruling has “made our union a little more perfect.” Obama also called Jim Obergefell, who was lead plaintiff in the case, as the Ohio resident celebrated in front of the Supreme Court along with hundreds of banner-waving allies.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer joined in the majority decision. All were appointed by Democratic presidents, and their support for same-sex marriage was never in question.
“By putting an end to an era of state-sanctioned discrimination, the decision lights the way to a future of acceptance, inclusion and opportunity for gay and lesbian Americans and their families,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.
In dissent, Republican-appointed Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito likewise voiced their positions foreshadowed by their prior opinions. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. also dissented, although it was Scalia who brought the heat with an alarm about “the court’s threat to democracy.”
“This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied, as it is today, by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves,” Scalia wrote.
Conservative politicians and advocates blasted the court, with presidential contender and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee telling his 340,000 Twitter followers that “the only outcome worse than this flawed decision would be for the President & Congress to surrender to this act of judicial tyranny.”
Kennedy’s authorship of the court’s majority opinion had been widely anticipated, because of his seniority and past actions.
The 78-year-old Sacramento, Calif., native previously authored the 2013 decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act’s prohibition on same-sex couples receiving federal benefits. A decade earlier, Kennedy wrote the decision striking down a Texas law banning homosexual sodomy. In 1996, he wrote the ruling striking down a Colorado ballot measure targeting gay rights.
Kennedy’s reasoning in the 2013 Defense of Marriage Act decision, in particular, foreshadowed the final same-sex marriage case. He concluded in the earlier case that “no legitimate purpose” was accomplished by benefit restrictions that simply served “to disparage and to injure” same-sex couples.
On the same day that Kennedy issued that ruling, the Supreme Court sidestepped an opportunity to decide whether the Constitution protects same-sex marriage rights. Instead, the court ruled narrowly then on a California case. Whether intentional or not, the delay effectively let the legal and political moment ripen before the high court acted.
The multiple cases decided Friday, consolidated under the name Obergefell v. Hodges, challenged marriage restrictions in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Michigan.
In 2004, 74.5 percent of Kentucky voters ratified a state constitutional amendment that declares only marriage between “one man and one woman” to be valid. The second type of restriction under challenge, like one imposed in Ohio, prohibited the recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Obergefell’s 2013 marriage in Maryland to his ailing longtime partner, the late John Arthur, wasn’t recognized by Ohio. Arthur has since passed away, but Obergefell has been awaiting the marriage decision in recent weeks on the steps of the Supreme Court.
“No other person will learn at the most painful moment of married life, the death of a spouse, that their marriage will be disregarded by the state,” Oberge fell wrote, in a statement issued by the White House. “No married couple who moves will suddenly become two single persons because their new state ignores their lawful marriage.”
The four specific states whose laws were struck down Friday were among the shrinking number to limit marriage. All told, 37 states and the District of Columbia already allow same-sex marriage, either as a result of a court decision or because of the state’s own action. A court ruling in the other direction could have caused considerable confusion in sorting out everyone’s legal status.
Underscoring the shifting tide of public sentiment, 63 percent of U.S. residents surveyed in a CNN/ORC International poll in February said they thought gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry, up from 49 percent in August 2010.
Many politicians, too, have taken note.
As recently as 2004, then-President George W. Bush saw political advantage in championing a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples. Now, while Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas introduced in April the familiar constitutional amendment limiting marriage, he has failed to attract any Senate co-sponsors.
“In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were,” Kennedy wrote. “As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.”
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed