The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on gay marriage Friday represents a far-reaching civil-rights victory ensuring that no American will be denied equality in law and the security of marriage simply because of who they are. Put this one in the win column for American couples who up to now were relegated to second-class citizenship because they could not marry the loving partner of their choice.
One day earlier, the court’s majority turned back a challenge to the equally expansive Affordable Care Act. Friday’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, however, is greater in constitutional scope and more far-reaching and meaningful in terms of its impact on society.
The Obamacare decision affirmed existing law, while the decision on gay marriage expands constitutional protections and recognizes, for the first time, that same-sex couples who marry are entitled to the same dignity as others. In social and civil-rights terms, it’s a quantum leap forward.
In Florida, the issue was joined six months ago when a federal judge struck down the state ban on marriage by same-sex couples. The state fought the ruling, but on Friday Attorney Gen. Pam Bondi, who spearheaded the appellate effort, accepted the legal defeat and the finality of the Supreme Court’s decision:
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“Today the United States Supreme Court provided the clarity our state and country was seeking. … Legal efforts were not about personal beliefs or opinions, but rather, the rule of law. The United States Supreme Court has the final word on interpreting the Constitution, and the court has spoken.”
The fact that the Supreme Court’s decision was foreshadowed by the near-unanimity of lower courts does not detract from the importance of the ruling. More than 50 lower courts decided in favor of marriage equality after the high court’s justices struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. Friday’s ruling was the logical outcome of a long legal process, but by no means guaranteed given the deep ideological division on the court.
The ruling became necessary after the majority of states — but not all — approved same-sex marriage, creating an untenable social and legal situation: Gay couples could marry in the 36 states where 70 percent of Americans live, but not in the remainder.
This raised a host of vexing issues. Could a couple marry in one state and move to another state where that right was not recognized? Could gay couples marry in one state and divorce in another that did not recognize gay marriage?
Then there were the tax and personal-finance complications posed by the tenuous situation of gay marriage. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority decision: “By virtue of their exclusion from that institution, same-sex couples are denied the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage. This harm results in more than just material burdens. Same-sex couples are consigned to an instability many opposite-sex couples would deem intolerable in their own lives.”
Exactly right. The majority opinion declared, in effect, that the state has no compelling reason to deny marriage to same-sex couples. Now, the same rights are recognized in all states. The decision was issued at 10 a.m. By 1 p.m., even some courts in Alabama were issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. Finally.