In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is constitutionally protected in all 50 states. The 5-4 decision was handed down after months of speculation, and decades of waiting.
Debate about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage has been a hot button topic for the last ten years; recent cases have brought more and more attention to the plight of same-sex couples. With over 35 years of cases, Obergefell v Hodges is truly significant, as it is the first time that the Supreme Court has chosen to hear an argument regarding marriage equality.
While many states have taken steps to guarantee marriage equality on their own, the Supreme Court has been hesitant to determine whether or not same-sex couples have the right to marry. However, it seems that the Supreme Court began taking steps towards marriage equality when the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was struck down in June of 2013.
In United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court, with conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy as the crucial swing vote, found that DOMA violated same-sex couples’ Fifth Amendment right to equal protection from the Federal Government. However, the Court did not apply that ruling to states. The aftermath of U.S. v. Windsor has seen marriage equality spread from seven states to 36, with most of those decisions coming from state courts.
The decision made today is built upon four cases from across the United States. While the decision has been officially filed as Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court elected to combine four separate appeals from Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Tennessee. Obergefell, the petitioner for whom the case is named, sued the state of Ohio for the right to be listed as the surviving spouse on his deceased husband’s death certificate. The case may be named for Obergefell, but the remaining couples also form an important part of the appeal.
Greg Bourke and Michael DeLeon (Kentucky) were married in 2004 in Canada, but were unable to receive all the benefits provided by the state. In the case of April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, their desire to both be named as the legal parents of their adopted children led them to challenge Michigan’s laws. Last, but certainly not least, Valeria Tanco and Sophy Jesty sued the state of Tennessee because the state does not recognize same-sex marriages, meaning that neither has the right to make decisions for the other in an emergency.
On April 28th, after weeks of preparation, the attorneys of these four couples came before the Supreme Court to try and persuade at least five justices that not only does the 14th Amendment require a state to issue a marriage license to same-sex couples, it also requires all states to recognize the marriage license issued by another state. It was crucial that the Supreme Court rule that the 14th Amendment requires both of these to be applied to same-sex couples. Without both, states without marriage equality laws could not only refuse to issue licenses, but also to enforce the protections that a state with marriage equality provides. For example, a couple married in New York and given all the rights that heterosexual couples receive there, but then could move to Missouri and be denied that protection.
The Supreme Court’s decision to find in favor of Obergefell and the companion petitioners represents the end to a major battle. It means that millions of American couples who have been denied basic rights as citizens will finally receive those rights. However, it also means years of cases, as states have to work through individual laws that might conflict with this decision. As USA Today points out, in Michigan, there is no law prohibiting discrimination against same-sex couples in housing, employment, or public accommodation. This will undoubtedly lead to a fight that will eventually find its way to the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court set precedent today, which seems to indicate that when these types of cases arrive at their doorstep, they will find that state discrimination is unconstitutional.
This decision also has long reaching ramifications for states’ rights. The Supreme Court, which in the past, has tended to find in favor of states, has opened the door for a battle over other states’ rights issues, and potentially weakens the power of those states to enforce their statutes.
Today is historic; but not unsurprising. Slowly but surely America has moved towards equality for all, with many state legislatures and courts creating marriage equality laws. As a country who prides itself for its ability to protect the freedom of all its citizens, marriage equality seems like a foregone conclusion. The decision today does not end the fight to ensure that all Americans are guaranteed their constitutional rights, but it is an impressive step in the right direction. As an African American woman, whose own community fought long and hard to receive the basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution, I have always and will always continue to be an ally for the LGBTQ community.
No longer is marriage defined by archaic wording; it is defined by the love and commitment shared by two willing people. I cannot imagine anything more beautiful. Congratulations.