Friday’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex marriage legal nationwide was not completely unexpected. Earlier court decisions seemed to lay the constitutional framework for the narrow 5-4 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.
Still, for those who have been working and hoping for years to achieve marriage equality, it was a monumental moment, with justice arriving “like a thunderbolt,” as President Obama put it.
Essentially the ruling makes clear that same-sex couples have the same right as anyone to marry, that under the equal protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment they have “equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority. “The Constitution grants them that right.”
The only way Friday’s decision could be undone would be to amend the U.S. Constitution. That’s highly unlikely, given the fact that a majority of Americans now say they support same-sex marriage, and that support is greatest among young people. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has failed to attract any co-sponsors for the constitutional amendment he introduced in April to limit marriage.
In Washington, same-sex marriage has been legal since 2012, when voters approved Referendum 74 by a 54-46 percent margin. But those unions were not recognized in states where it was not legal. Friday’s ruling changes that, requiring that all pre-existing same-sex marriages be recognized everywhere in the United States.
Our preference for achieving national marriage equality was through legislative action instead of a court mandate. A close decision like the one in Obergefell is slim support for such a sweeping reversal of existing state law. Compare that to unanimous decisions in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education (outlawing school segregation) and 1967’s Loving v. Virginia (striking down laws against interracial marriage).
Of course, Friday’s decision is unpopular in many quarters — including on the Supreme Court. Conservative justices John Roberts Jr., Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito penned spirited dissents to it, and many Americans hold religious reasons for opposing same-sex marriage.
But given the rising popular support for same-sex marriage and the tension between the states where it is legal and where it isn’t, a patchwork system in which marriages performed in one state weren’t recognized in another was unworkable. The court’s decision resolves that dilemma and recognizes the keen desire of many same-sex couples for the legitimacy of marriage.
Kennedy — the justice widely acknowledged to be the swing voter on this and other issues on the court — seemed to signal the direction the court was going back in 2013, when he wrote the decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act’s ban on same-sex couples receiving federal benefits.
There was “no legitimate purpose” in denying those benefits, he wrote; that seemed to serve only “to disparage and to injure” same-sex couples.
The court could have ruled then in favor of same-sex marriage rights nationwide, but deferred. In retrospect, that seems wise. In just those two years, Americans’ support for marriage equality has grown significantly, making Friday’s decision seem more inevitable than surprising.
Efforts continue against discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and housing. But now is a time to celebrate the court’s acknowledgement that same-sex couples are equally deserving of marriage.