WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Friday that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage, ending a long fight for equal rights and several decades of litigation and activism.
The 5-4 ruling came in two parts: Same-sex couples are now allowed to marry regardless of where they live, and states can no longer limit marriage rights exclusively to heterosexual couples.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, was joined by the court’s liberal arm in backing same-sex marriage rights. Kennedy was appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan, and he wrote the previous opinion enlarging same-sex marriage rights exactly two years ago.
Prior to Friday’s ruling, 37 states issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were,” Kennedy wrote. “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 they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.”
Kennedy was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. delivered the dissenting opinion, which said the Constitution says nothing about a right to same-sex marriage.
“Just who do we think we are?” he asked, in a firm, but calm voice. “I have no choice but to dissent.”
Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas joined Roberts, each writing separate dissents.
Just as Kennedy concluded reading the summary of the majority opinion, several people seated in the court’s gallery smiled widely and embraced. A few wiped away tears.
“No union is more profound than marriage,” Kennedy said.
The landmark case, Obergefell v. Hodges, included three related cases, and came after James Obergefell sued the state of Ohio to recognize his marriage to John Arthur.
Friday’s ruling followed other opinions expanding marriage rights, including California’s Proposition 8 in Hollingsworth v. Perry and the 2013 ruling in the U.S. v. Windsor case, overturning part of the Defense of Marriage Act.
“If you are among the many Americans — of whatever sexual orientation — who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision,” Roberts said. “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.”
Roberts also cast an anti-same-sex marriage stance that often comes under fire from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender advocates: that allowing the practice could lead to the culmination of court rulings forcing legal recognition of polygamy.
“From the standpoint of history and tradition, a leap from opposite-sex marriage to same-sex marriage is much greater than one from a two-person union to plural unions, which have deep roots in some cultures around the world,” Roberts wrote. “If the majority is willing to take the big leap, it is hard to see how it can say no to the shorter one.”
In his dissent, Scalia said the outcome of the case “is not of immese personal importance to me.” But he said the decision on marriage should be made by the voters, “not an unelected committee of nine.”
In a footnote, he said, “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.”
The calm inside was in contrast to what unfolded outside. In front of the building’s white marble steps, an estimated crowd of over 1,000 waved rainbow and red equality flags, released balloons and snapped selfies in front of the building’s signature columns.
As intimate groups of couples held hands, others at the foot of the building and across the street called loved ones, some who were celebrating overseas.
One supporter of the court’s ruling dressed up as Ginsburg, complete with a fake black judicial gown, large rimmed black glasses, white gloves and the initials “RBG” bejeweled on his back.
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were among national leaders to praise the ruling, both in person and on social media.
Prior to an address at the White House, Obama took to Twitter, writing from his @POTUS handle:
Today is a big step in our march toward equality. Gay and lesbian couples now have the right to marry, just like anyone else. #LoveWins
— President Obama (@POTUS) June 26, 2015
Then, in a brief address in the Rose Garden, Obama said: “Progress on this journey often comes in small increments, sometimes two steps forward, one step back, propelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens. And then sometimes, there are days like this, when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”
Those remarks came came a few minutes after he called Obergefell to congratulate him.
The ruling came as several recent surveys and polls indicated that the majority Americans favor same-sex marriage.
Public backing for same-sex marriage stood at 57 percent, according to June 8 results from a Pew Research Center that surveyed 2,002 adults nationwide. In that same study, more than 7 in 10 Americans said that legal recognition of marriages between couples of the same sex is “inevitable.”
Within two hours of the decision, #LoveWins became the top-trending hashtag on Twitter.
The decision also drew partisan reaction from major-party presidential candidates. While the four Democratic candidates all praised the outcome in their own ways, all 13 GOP hopefuls outlined their personal opposition to same-sex marriage, saying the issue should be left for individual states to decide.
In a statement posted on his website, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said the country “must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.”
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley connected Friday’s ruling to his home state’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in 2013:
So grateful to the people of MD for leading the way on this important issue of human dignity and equality under the law. #MarriageEquaility
— Martin O’Malley (@MartinOMalley) June 26, 2015
The court ruled on a second case Friday, overturning a longer prison sentence for a felon who was found with a gun. The justices said the law that provided for the longer sentence was too vague. The case is Johnson v. the United States.
The court will issue opinions in the final three cases this term on Monday beginning at 10 a.m., Scalia said.
Reach Quentin Misiag at [email protected] or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
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