A divided Supreme Court made history on Friday, ruling that the Constitution ensures the right of same-sex couples to marry.
In a resounding decision that caps a remarkably fast transformation across the social, legal and political landscapes, the high court overturned marriage restrictions in Kentucky and three other states and ensured marriage equality for gay couples nationwide.
“Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
The court’s 5-4 majority concluded the Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection ensures the same-sex marriage rights. In a tweet that included the hashtag #LoveWins, President Barack Obama, whose administration argued in support of the ruling, called the decision a “big step in our march toward equality.”
The decision locks in same-sex marriage rights, guaranteeing that marriages that already have been performed must be recognized in every state. The only way to unravel the court’s action would be to amend the U.S. Constitution, a longshot that has fallen from political favor.
“The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,” Kennedy wrote.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer joined in the majority decision. All were appointed by Democratic presidents, and their support for same-sex marriage was never in question. Their decision was greeted with exultation outside the Supreme Court, and in a flurry of immediate reactions from advocacy groups.
“Today the Supreme Court made clear once and for all that gays and lesbians are not second-class citizens and that our law recognizes their loving and committed relationships as equal to all others,” declared Caroline Fredrickson, president of the liberal American Constitution Society.
In dissent, Republican-appointed Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito likewise voiced their positions foreshadowed by their prior opinions. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. also dissented.
“The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact, and the furthest extension one can even imagine, of the Court’s claimed power to create ‘liberties’ that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention,” Scalia wrote.
Kennedy’s authorship of the court’s majority opinion had been widely anticipated, because of his seniority and his past actions.
The 78-year-old Sacramento, Calif., native previously authored the 2013 decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act’s prohibition on same-sex couples receiving federal benefits. A decade earlier, Kennedy wrote the decision striking down a Texas law banning homosexual sodomy. In 1996, he wrote the ruling striking down a Colorado ballot measure targeting gay rights.
Kennedy’s reasoning in the 2013 Defense of Marriage Act decision, in particular, foreshadowed the final same-sex marriage case. He concluded in the earlier case that “no legitimate purpose” was accomplished by benefit restrictions that simply served “to disparage and to injure” same-sex couples.
On the same day that Kennedy issued the 2013 Defense of Marriage Act ruling, the Supreme Court sidestepped an opportunity to decide whether the Constitution protects same-sex marriage rights. Instead, the court ruled narrowly then on a California case. Whether it was intentional or not, the delay effectively let the legal and political moment ripen before the high court acted.
The multiple cases decided Friday, consolidated under the name Obergefell v. Hodges, challenged marriage restrictions in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Michigan.
In 2004, 74.5 percent of Kentucky voters ratified a state constitutional amendment that declares only marriage between “one man and one woman” to be valid. The second type of restriction under challenge, like one imposed in Ohio, prohibited the recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Ohio resident James Obergefell’s 2013 marriage in Maryland to his ailing longtime partner, the late John Arthur, wasn’t recognized by the state of Ohio. While Arthur has since passed away, Obergefell has been showing up at the Supreme Court for decision days in recent weeks in anticipation of the same-sex marriage decision.
“Far from seeking to devalue marriage, the petitioners seek it for themselves because of their respect – and need – for its privileges and responsibilities,” Kennedy wrote. “And their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment.”
The four states whose laws were struck down Friday were among the shrinking number to limit marriage. All told, 37 states and the District of Columbia already allow same-sex marriage, either as a result of a court decision or because of the state’s own action. A court ruling in the other direction could have caused considerable confusion in sorting out everyone’s legal status.
Underscoring the shifting tide of public sentiment, 63 percent of U.S. residents surveyed in aCNN/ORC International poll in February said they thought gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry, up from 49 percent in August 2010.
Many politicians, too, have taken note.
As recently as 2004, then-President George W. Bush saw political advantage in championing a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples. Now, while Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas introduced in April the familiar constitutional amendment limiting marriage, he has failed to attracted any Senate co-sponsors.
“In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were,” Kennedy wrote. “As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.”
Lesley Clark of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.
Quotes from the U.S. Supreme court majority ruling by Justice Anthony Kennedy:
“There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices.”
“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”
“The right to marry is fundamental as a matter of history and tradition, but rights come not from ancient sources.... They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era. Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here. But when that sincere, personal opposition becomes enacted law and public policy, the necessary consequence is to put the imprimatur of the State itself on an exclusion that soon demeans or stigmatizes those whose own liberty is then denied.”
“These considerations lead to the conclusion that the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty. The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. No longer may this liberty be denied to them.”
“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. 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.”
From Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissent:
“... This Court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be.”
“Today, however, the Court takes the extraordinary step of ordering every State to license and recognize same-sex marriage. Many people will rejoice at this decision, and I begrudge none their celebration. But for those who believe in a government of laws, not of men, the majority’s approach is deeply disheartening. Supporters of same-sex marriage have achieved considerable success persuading their fellow citizens—through the democratic process—to adopt their view. That ends today. Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law. Stealing this issue from the people will for many cast a cloud over same-sex marriage, making a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.”
“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. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected 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.”
“The Court today not only overlooks our country’s entire history and tradition but actively repudiates it, preferring to live only in the heady days of the here and now.”
“If you are among the many Americans-of whatever sexual orientation-who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”
From Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent:
“Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact— and the furthest extension one can even imagine—of the Court’s claimed power to create “liberties” that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention. This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.”
“If, even as the price to be paid for a fifth vote, I ever joined an opinion for the Court that began: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,” I would hide my head in a bag. The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.”