It’s Legal! Supreme Court Issues Historic Civil Rights Ruling Clearing the Way for Gay Marriage

"They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

J. Scott Applewhite/AP


In a historic ruling, the Supreme Court ruled Friday that the Constitution guarantees the right of same-sex couples to marry, invalidating gay marriage bans nationwide.

Penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the 5-4 opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to allow same-sex couples to marry. “[T]he reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply with equal force to same-sex couples,” Kennedy wrote. The court’s four conservative justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, dissented.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” Kennedy concluded in his opinion. The challengers “ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Friday’s ruling comes amid a rapid transformation of public opinion on gay marriage. In 2001, 57 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. Today, 57 percent support it, according to the Pew Research Center. The landmark case will go down as part of the Roberts Court’s legacy. The chief justice wrote the court’s the principal dissent, which runs 29 pages and focuses largely on his belief that the issue should have been resolved through the democratic process, not the courts. At the end, he acknowledged the historic moment at hand. “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,” he wrote. “But do not Celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” Kennedy concluded in his opinion.

The case, brought by four states seeking to maintain their same-sex marriage bans, ultimately came down to a simple legal question about the rights to equal protection and due process afforded by the Fourteenth Amendment. Kennedy and the liberal justices found that banning gay and lesbian couples from marrying deprived Americans of both. The court’s decision invalidates bans in the 13 states that currently prohibit same-sex marriage. The decision will take effect as soon as lower courts and the remaining states comply in the coming days and weeks.

Two years ago, the court took a major step toward marriage equality when it required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, striking down a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act. In his dissent in United States v. Windsor, Justice Antonin Scalia predicted that the majority opinion, authored by Kennedy, would be used to overturn state bans on same-sex marriage. “By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition,” Scalia wrote. He was right.

Over the past two years, courts around the country have cited Windsor—and often Scalia’s dissent in the case—to strike down state bans on same-sex marriage. Before Windsor, nine states and Washington, DC, allowed same-sex marriage. Today, 37 states do. In Obergefell, the Supreme Court, and Kennedy in particular as the author of the Windsor case and the swing vote on this issue, had to confront its ruling two years ago and decide how far it really intended to go. On Friday, Kennedy made the rights that he hinted at in Windsor the law of the land.

“The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” Kennedy wrote. “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a character protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.”