Supreme Court’s Decision On Same-Sex Marriage

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Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States released their opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Obergefell consists of a number of consolidated cases that originated from Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee, all states that limited marriage to a union between a man and a woman.  The petitioners in Obergefell are fourteen same-sex couples and two men whose same-sex partners are deceased.

The petitioners sued the state officials who are responsible for enforcing the state laws in question.  All of the trial courts, the individual United States District Courts in the petitioners’ home states, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

The respondents appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which consolidated the matters and reversed the decisions of the trial courts.  From there, the Petitioners sought review by the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Supreme Court review considered two issues on review:

  • Whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex; and
  • Whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to recognize a same-sex marriage licensed and performed in a state that does not grant that right.

The Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment does require both.  Justice Kennedy authored the majority opinion in the 5-4 decision, in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.

The Court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment extends to certain personal choices.  Examining numerous previous decisions regarding the right to marry, the court held that such analysis requires conclusion that same-sex couples have the right to marry.  The Court notes that the reasons that marriage is fundamental apply equally to same-sex couples.    First, the Court addresses how the right to marry is central to personal autonomy.  Second, the Court notes that the right to marry is fundamental as it promotes the two-person union over others because of the level of commitment.  The third basis is that it protects children and families.  The Court notes that all parties are in agreement that same-sex couples provide children with loving and nurturing homes and that the children of same-sex couples, without the protections of marriage between their parents, suffer.  Finally, the Court notes that marriage is an integral part of social order in our country.  Justice Kennedy notes that, although limiting marriage to opposite-sex unions may have seemed natural and just, such limitation conflicts with the central value of the fundamental right to marry.

After discussing that the right to marry is fundamental, the court holds that under both the Due Process and the Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, same-sex couples may not be deprived of the right to marry.

Next, Justice Kennedy turns to the second question presented.  As the Court held that same-sex couples have the fundamental right to marry in all states, there is no legal basis for a state to fail to recognize a marriage based on its same-sex nature when lawfully performed in another state.

In conclusion, Justice Kennedy writes:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.  In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.  As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.  It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage.  Their plea is that the 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.

Obergefell v. Hodges, No. 14-556, slip op. at 28 (Sup. Ct. June 26, 2015).

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