Previously published at Moral Low Ground and Digital Journal
Same-sex marriage equality is now the law of the land as the United States Supreme Court ruled in an historic civil rights case on Friday that the Constitution requires that gay couples be allowed to marry across the nation.
In a 5-4 decision, the justices in Obergefell v. Hodges overturned gay marriage bans in the 13 states that still bar such unions. The court also ruled that all 50 states must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
The ruling comes two years to the day after the same court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and exactly 12 years after the high court dealt a death blow to anti-sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas.
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Reagan appointee who was once again a crucial swing vote, wrote for the majority. “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. 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,” wrote Kennedy. “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. The court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. No longer may this liberty be denied to them.”
Kennedy, who was joined by liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, flatly rejected the notion, popular among many conservatives and religious Americans, that allowing gays and lesbians to marry would undermine the institution of marriage and harm children and families. While hearing arguments in the case, Kennedy frequently focused on the dignity of LGBT Americans. In denying them the right to marry, states also denied key rights, from child custody to inheritance to even hospital visitation.
Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented. For the first time in his tenure, Roberts read his dissent from the bench, asserting that “this is a court, not a legislature.”
“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 declared. “It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law. The Constitution leaves no doubt about the answer.”
Justice Antonin Scalia called the decision a “threat to American democracy” and a “constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine.”
In Obergefell v. Hodges, 14 same-sex couples and two men whose partners are deceased had filed suits in federal district courts challenging bans in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, where marriage was defined as a union between one man and one woman. The petitioners argued officials in those states were violating the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law.
While lower courts found in the couples’ favor, the conservative Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the marriage bans in a November 2014 ruling, bucking a nationwide trend in favor of legalization. Prior to Friday’s ruling, 37 states and the District of Columbia issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Friday’s ruling comes just 11 years after Massachusetts became the first state to grant same-sex couples the right to marry. By 2015, more than 70 percent of Americans lived in states where LGBT couples had achieved marriage equality.
Despite what seemed like an inevitable march toward equality, some states fought hard against it, and in Alabama, state supreme court Chief Justice Roy Moore ordered judges to ignore a federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage there, drawing comparisons to the way then-governor George Wallace defiantly defended racial segregation during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
That defiance continued even after Friday’s court ruling, with Pike County, Alabama Probate Judge Wes Allen releasing a statement declaring his office will no longer issue marriage licenses to anyone.
Gay rights advocates hailed the high court’s decision, with wild celebrations erupting outside the Supreme Court as the ruling was read. There were jubilant embraces, chants of “love wins” and plenty of tears of joy in Washington and across America on this historic morning.
“It’s been an incredible day and something I never thought I would experience,” lead plaintiff Jim Obergefell told CNN. Obergefell and his partner, John Arthur, who suffered from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), lived in Ohio and traveled to Maryland to marry. Arthur died shortly after the couple tied the knot.
“As Americans we deserve the same rights and the same respect as any other couple,” said Obergefell. “It’s been an incredible thing for me to be able to stand up and fight not just for John’s and my marriage but for couples across the country.”
Evan Wolfson, who started the LGBT marriage equality campaign group Freedom to Marry in 2003, told the New York Times that his group’s work is done and that he would close the organization “within months.” Wolfson, who married his partner after gay marriage was legalized in New York in 2011, called Friday’s ruling “a profound affirmation of gay people’s right to be fully part of America.”
President Barack Obama, who after “evolving” on the issue of marriage equality came out in support of gay marriage in 2012, phoned Obergefell after Friday’s ruling was announced, telling him that “your leadership on this has changed the country.”
“Our nation was founded on a bedrock principle, that we are all created equal,” Obama said in a White House address following the ruling. “The project of each generation is to bridge the meaning of those founding words with the reality of changing times.”
“Progress on this journey often comes in small increments… [but] sometimes there are days like this, when justice arrives like a thunderbolt,” Obama continued. “This morning the Supreme Court recognized that the Constitution guarantees marriage equality. In doing so, they reaffirmed that all Americans are entitled to the equal protection of the law; that all people should be treated equally regardless of who they are or who they love.”
Obama called the ruling a victory not only for “gay and lesbian couples who have fought so long for their basic human rights,” but for the entire nation.
“This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts, that when all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free,” the president said.
“Today we can say in no uncertain terms that we’ve made our union a little more perfect,” Obama concluded. “What an extraordinary achievement. America should be very proud.”
Leading conservatives and many religious leaders expressed their disappointment at Friday’s ruling.
Former Baptist pastor and Arkansas governor and 2016 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said the ruling will prove to be “one of the court’s most disastrous opinions.”
“I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch,” Huckabee said. “We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.”
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who is also running for president, predicted the decision “will pave the way for an all-out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision.”
“The Supreme Court decision today conveniently and not surprisingly follows public opinion polls, and tramples on states’ rights that were once protected by the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution. Marriage between a man and a woman was established by God, and no earthly court can alter that,” Jindal said in a statement.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor considered by many to be the frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, said he does not agree with the ruling but also does not believe an anti-LGBT constitutional amendment, as supported by Republicans including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), is the answer.
Family Research Council (FRC), a Christian-based anti-gay conservative organization and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)-designated hate group, blasted the ruling.
“No court can overturn natural law,” fumed FRC President Tony Perkins. “Nature and Nature’s God, hailed by the signers of our Declaration of Independence as the very source of law, cannot be usurped by the edict of a court, even the United States Supreme Court.” Perkins, who has called gays “vile” and “pedophiles,” said the Supreme Court’s decision “will never be accepted.”
America’s Roman Catholic bishops called the ruling a “tragic error.”
“Jesus Christ, with great love, taught unambiguously that from the beginning marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman,” Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement released after the ruling. “As Catholic bishops, we follow our Lord and will continue to teach and to act according to this truth.”
But more progressive religious organizations welcomed legalized marriage equality. Christopher J. Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, called the decision “a moment of great joy for many Catholics.” Ministers with the United Church of Christ announced they will begin officiating at same-sex marriages on Friday in Ohio, one of the few states where such unions remained illegal. In Pennsylvania, Rev. David Mellott, dean of Lancaster Theological Seminary, and Rev. Lance Mullins, co-pastor of Wisdom’s Table at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, issued a joint statement praising the ruling.
“Our government is catching up with what we same-gender loving people have known all along: our relationships are capable of being full of grace, healing, and love,” they wrote. “Since long before this country was founded we have been creating families, building homes, and making vows to each other. Today, marriages like ours receive the full protection of the law. Thanks be to God!”
Reflecting a general trend toward acceptance of LGBT equality—a majority of Americans and even six in 10 Republicans under age 30 supports same-sex marriage rights, some Republicans either saw the writing on the wall or have genuinely evolved on the issue and said they were pleased by the Supreme Court decision.
“In 2013, I decided to support marriage equality after I came to understand this issue better in the context of my own family,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), whose son is gay. “I can’t help but view today’s Supreme Court decision through that same lens. And as a father, I welcome today’s decision.”
The ruling came as cities across America, from San Francisco to New York, and around the world, get ready to celebrate LGBT Pride events. This weekend’s parties and parades will surely be even more festive than usual considering the historic news that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans have at long last achieved marriage equality, although anti-LGBT employment discrimination remains legal in employment in a majority of states and LGBT people still face widespread bigotry, bullying and disapproval across the country.
But on Friday, the United States joined just 20 other nations—The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, Denmark, France, Brazil, Uruguay, New Zealand, Britain, Luxembourg, Finland, Ireland and Mexico—in affirming that LGBT people have the fundamental right to marry who they love, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. On Friday, a day history will regard as one of the most important in the history of civil rights, love won.