Court victory for marriage equality

Same-sex couples now have the right to marry in the United States. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Friday that the Constitution guarantees marriage equality, regardless of state-level bans. The historic ruling is a victory for the marriage equality movement after decades of activism, advocacy and litigation.

Early this year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case it ruled on today, Obergefell v. Hodges, involving gay and lesbian couples from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee who appealed their states’ marriage bans. Lawyers argued that the right to marriage and equal protection is fundamental and that state bans were an affront to clients’ dignity. The marriage ban also created practical problems for these couples, the attorneys added, including harm to their children.

Lawyers defending the four states argued on the basis of tradition that to allow same-sex couples to marry would be to redefine a historic institution. The lawyers also argued for the matter to be resolved by people and their elected officials, not by appointed judges.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion. “The court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. No longer may this liberty be denied to them.” He was joined by the court’s liberal justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The court’s four conservative members — John G. Roberts Jr., Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — each wrote their own dissenting opinion. “This is a court, not a legislature,” Roberts said.

Scalia wrote that same-sex marriage is a policy question that shouldn’t be resolved by a “select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine.” In his opinion, the court’s ruling violates a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: “no social transformation without representation.”

As The New York Times reports, today’s decision was the final step in the Court’s slow but methodical dismantling of same-sex-marriage restrictions.

In 2013, the Court struck down key provisions in the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples, even if they lived in states where it was legal. On that same day in 2013, the court also heard a constitutional challenge to Proposition 8 — California’s gay marriage ban — but ducked the ultimate decision, saying the case was not properly before them.

Since then, circuit courts have been striking down same-sex marriage bans at the state level. Many of these bans had been passed by voter referendums. Public opinion swung rapidly on the issue, with the majority of Americans now embracing a couple’s right to marry regardless of sexual orientation.

Just prior to Friday’s ruling, 70 percent of Americans lived in a state that allowed same-sex marriage.

Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, wrote in a statement, “Five justices on the Supreme Court have overturned the votes of 50 million Americans and demanded that the American people walk away from millennia of history and the reality of human nature.

“In reaching a decision so lacking in foundation in the text of the Constitution, in our history, and in our traditions, the Court has done serious damage to its own legitimacy,” Perkins wrote.

Today, Representative Ed Perlmutter, from Colorado, released a statement saying, “Today is a historic day for marriage equality and equal rights. Every person now has the freedom and opportunity to marry the person they love. The Supreme Court’s decision is a win for love and respect, and for the equality of all families across the country.”

Photo credit: William Murphy, Mural by Joe Caslin, Creative Commons, Flickr