On Apr. 28, 2015, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges over whether or not gay marriage is a right guaranteed by the US Constitution, and whether or not gay marriages performed in states where it has been legalized must be recognized in states which ban the practice.
On June 26, 2015, the Court ruled 5-4 that gay marriage is a constitutional right, meaning that all 50 states must allow it and that all existing bans are invalid. The decision concluded a decades-long battle over whether gay marriage should be legalized.
Read details below or go directly to excerpts from the majority opinion and one of the four dissenting opinions.
1. Whether the US Constitution’s due process and equal protection clauses guarantee a right to same-sex marriage.
2. Whether states are constitutionally bound to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
About the Case
Obergefell v. Hodges is a consolidation of six lawsuits from four states: Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. All four states are covered by the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which upheld the states’ gay marriage bans in Nov. 2014, thus ending a run of success for the gay marriage movement during which more than 40 state and federal courts overturned same-sex marriage bans. The resulting judicial conflict prompted the US Supreme Court to hear the case.
One of the case’s namesakes, Jim Obergefell, sued his home state of Ohio in 2013 along with his partner, John Arthur, who was dying of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The couple wanted the state to acknowledge their marriage on Arthur’s death certificate. Obergefell and Arthur had married in Maryland, but their marriage was not recognized in Ohio, where same-sex marriage is illegal. Arthur passed away, and a federal judge ruled that Ohio must recognize the legal union. The state’s appeal was successful, however, reversing the decision. Hodges in the case’s title refers to lead defendant Richard Hodges, an Ohio state official.
Proponents and Opponents
A record 148 amicus (friend of the court) briefs were filed with the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, beating the previous record of 136 filed in a 2013 case concerning Obamacare. The briefs filed in support of gay marriage included one by 370 small and large businesses, one by 300 Republican officeholders and activists, and one filed by a group of former high-ranking civilian Defense Department personnel. The briefs filed in opposition to gay marriage include those by states that have banned gay marriage, along with briefs filed by various conservative politicians, scholars, and organizations.
Four days before the hearing, people started camping on the sidewalk outside the Court hoping to secure a seat inside for the proceedings. Protestors for and against gay marriage assembled nearby, with at least one anti gay marriage protestor managing to get a seat inside. After yelling “If you support gay marriage you will burn in hell” while the arguments were in progress, the man was dragged screaming out of the courtroom. Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia was heard to comment, “Rather refreshing actually,” during the incident.
Statements from the Justices
During the two-and-a-half-hour hearing, the Court appeared sharply divided. Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered by many to be the Court’s swing vote who could determine the outcome, gave no conclusive indication of which way his vote would fall. Kennedy expressed a reticence to override a definition of marriage that “has been with us for millennia,” yet suggested that gay couples could have a “noble purpose” in wishing to marry. The New York Times reported that Kennedy appeared “more emotional and emphatic when he made the case for same-sex marriage,” giving “gay rights advocates reason for optimism.”
Chief Justice John Roberts, the other member of the Court whose position was considered by some to be uncertain, also emphasized the long-established tradition of heterosexual marriage. Roberts told lawyers arguing on behalf of gay marriage proponents that “you’re not seeking to join that institution, you’re seeking to change what the institution is.”
Justice Elena Kagan, a member of the Court’s more liberal wing, questioned the notion that same-sex marriage would prove a detriment to children. Noting that many same-sex couples wish to adopt, and that marriage would allow more couples to do so, she asked, “How is it not a good thing?”
Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the majority opinion, in which he was joined by Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Dissents were written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Anthony Alito, Jr. The Court ruled that marriage is a constitutional right protected by the 14th Amendment and that states cannot deny any couple that right, including same-sex couples. The Court added that it therefore follows that the second issue before the court, as to whether or not same-sex marriages be recognized in states that ban them, is also resolved: “if States are required by the Constitution to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the justifications for refusing to recognize those marriages performed elsewhere are undermined.”
Read the Syllabus, the Opinion of the Court, and the four dissenting opinions
Joan Biskupic, “Top U.S. Court Appears on Cusp of Declaring Right to Gay Marriage,” reuters.com, Apr. 26, 2015
Amanda Holpuch, “Same-Sex Marriage: US Supreme Court Has Few Choices but to ‘End the Debate’,” theguardian.com, Apr. 27, 2015
Lawrence Hurley, “Divided Supreme Court Wrestles with Gay Marriage Case,” reuters.com, Apr. 28, 2015
Adam Liptak, “Gay Marriage Arguments Divide Supreme Court Justices,” nytimes.com, Apr. 28, 2015
Adam Liptak, “Gay Marriage Backers Win Supreme Court Victory,” nytimes.com, June 26, 2015
Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court to Decide Marriage Rights for Gay Couples Nationwide,” nytimes.com, Jan. 16, 2015
Erik Ortiz, “Supreme Court Gay Marriage Debate Puts Ohio Man Jim Obergefell in Center,” nbcnews.com, Apr. 26, 2015
Obergefell v. Hodges, majority decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, June 26, 2015
Michael S. Rosenwald, “How Jim Obergefell Became the Face of the Supreme Court Gay Marriage Case,” washingtonpost.com, Apr. 6, 2015
Adam Teicholz, “Meet Jim Obergefell: The Man Behind the Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Case,” abcnews.go.com, Apr. 28, 2015
Nina Totenberg, “Legal Battle Over Gay Marriage Hits The Supreme Court Tuesday,” npr.org, Apr. 27, 2015
Nina Totenberg, “Record Number of Amicus Briefs Filed in Same-Sex-Marriage Cases,” npr.org, Apr. 28, 2015
Richard Wolf and Brad Heath, “Justices Appear Cautious, Divided on Same-Sex Marriage,” usatoday.com, Apr. 28, 2015
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