WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of full marriage rights for all couples nationwide in an opinion released June 26 in Obergefell v. Hodges, one of several cases brought to the court.
The court’s majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who’s written all of the court’s past landmark gay rights cases. He and four other justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses protect the rights of same-gender couples.
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Kennedy said the legalization of marriage strengthens, not weakens the institution.
The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change,” Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “Changes, such as the decline of arranged marriages and the abandonment of the law of coverture, have worked deep transformations in the structure of marriage, affecting aspects of marriage once viewed as essential. These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution. Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.”
Kennedy added, “This dynamic can be seen in the Nation’s experience with gay and lesbian rights. Well into the 20th century, many States condemned same-sex intimacy as immoral, and homosexuality was treated as an illness. Later in the century, cultural and political developments allowed same-sex couples to lead more open and public lives. Extensive public and private dialogue followed, along with shifts in public attitudes.”
In ending the opinion, Kennedy wrote, “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 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.”
Chief Justice Roberts dissented in the case, along with Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
In his dissent, Roberts said the expansion of rights for same-gender couples is powerful, it’s not the court’s place to rule on the subject.
“[T]his Court is not a legislature,” Roberts wrote. “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.”
The decision now opens marriage equality in all 50 states. North Carolina couples were able to legally wed in October, the result of a decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. But couples in 13 other states, including Georgia, Tennessee, Michigan and others, were still denied marriage rights.
The court’s order, however, isn’t technically immediate. Though many county clerks in states with bans began issuing marriage licenses on June 26, the Supreme Court will wait about three weeks after their ruling to issue their mandate — the official order to states.
The decision came on the anniversary of two other landmark LGBT-rights decisions, Lawrence v. Texas decided on June 26, 2003, striking down crimes-against-nature laws, and, decided on June 26, 2013, which opened federal recognition of same-gender marriages in states where they were legally performed.
Will N.C.’s magistrate law be overturned?
After the ruling, attention turned quickly to North Carolina’s recently passed magistrate refusal bill. The Republican-dominated General Assembly passed Senate Bill 2 over Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto, allowing magistrates and registers of deeds to opt out of their duties to provide civil marriage services to couples based only on their “sincerely held” religious beliefs.
Some lawmakers had said the law was unconstitutional during debate and many are repeating the same claims now.
In Forsyth County, Democratic Rep. Evelyn Terry said the court’s marriage ruling makes “it now appear that the new law … is unconstitutional,” according to The Winston-Salem Journal. The newspaper also reported Republican Donny Lambeth making similar remarks, as did Mecklenburg County Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson, who tweeted, “[T]here’s no way this ruling is good for SB2. Start the clock.”
Whether the magistrate bill will be challenged is still an unknown. As of now, the law still stands.
“It doesn’t invalidate the magistrate law,” Suzanne Reynolds, of the Wake Forest University School of Law, told The Charlotte Observer. “It does suggest that when it is challenged (in court) it’ll be found unconstitutional. On a number of grounds. One is that it burdens the exercise of a fundamental right without a rational justification. The 14th Amendment requires a rational justification. And this ruling suggests the (magistrate) law is irrational.”
Praise flows after ruling
LGBT leaders and organizations across the state and nation were quick to release statements in reaction the ruling. Here are a few excerpts.
❝ This ruling is a victory for Jim Obergefell and the other plaintiffs in the case. It’s a victory for gay and lesbian couples who have fought so long for their basic civil rights. It’s a victory for their children, whose families will now be recognized as equal to any other. It’s a victory for the allies and friends and supporters who spent years, even decades, working and praying for change to come. And this ruling is a victory for America. This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts: When all Americans are treated as equal we are all more free. ❞
— President Barack Obama to media in the White House Rose Garden on June 26, 2015.
Jim Obergefell, named plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case: “Today I could not be prouder of my country, more grateful for the memory of my late husband John, and more indebted to the incredible lawyers, advocates and fellow plaintiffs who made this landmark day possible. The fact that the state I have long called home will finally recognize my marriage to the man I honored and cherished for more than 20 years is a profound vindication — a victory I’m proud to share with countless more couples across the country. Thanks to the Supreme Court, a period of deep injustice in this nation is coming to a close, but it’s also clear today that there is still so much work to do. As long as discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is tolerated—whether in the seeking of a marriage license, the pursuit of fairness on the job, or the fight for equal treatment at a restaurant or business—we haven’t truly guaranteed equal justice under the law. But today’s victory proves that anything is possible, and I could not be more hopeful about the capacity of this country to change for the better.”
Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina: “Today’s ruling granting loving, same-sex couples the freedom to marry across our United States is a historic moment for our country, and for tens of thousands of same-sex families who call our state home. With it, gays and lesbians in every corner of the United States will finally be able to marry the person they love. Today, love won and we celebrate all who have worked tirelessly over many decades to change hearts and minds and make this ruling a possibility. Even as we celebrate, we know our progress does not and will not end at the Supreme Court. Same-sex couples can legally marry in North Carolina—and the very same day, be denied public services, fired from their job or denied housing simply because of who they are. With these harsh realities in mind, Equality NC remains committed to fighting for full equality for LGBT North Carolinians wherever they work or live.”
Roberta Kaplan, lead counsel in U.S. v. Windsor (2003) and the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality’s Mississippi marriage case, Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant: “What a glorious day for this great country. By recognizing once and for all that the Constitution respects the dignity of all Americans, gay or straight, the Supreme Court has once again honored the core American values of equal protection and due process of law. We are confident that Mississippi officials statewide will honor their constitutional duties and will move quickly to begin issuing marriage licenses to our clients Andrea Sanders and Becky Bickett and to the many other Mississippians who have waited so long to protect their families by marrying the person who they love.”
Campaign for Southern Equality’s Jasmine Beach-Ferrara: “LGBT families have always been equal in the eyes of God but now, finally, they are also equal under the law, with a safety net of legal protections surrounding them. With great joy, we expect that marriages will begin immediately in Mississippi and Alabama. Through this landmark decision, the Court has signaled that policies that treat LGBT people as second-class citizens do not fulfill the American promise of equal protection under the law and cannot stand.”
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign: “Today’s ruling makes perfectly clear that there is no legal or moral justification for standing in the path of marriage equality. Couples from Mississippi to North Dakota to Texas shouldn’t have to wait even a moment longer to be treated equally under the law. State officials across the country must act swiftly to ensure that every obstacle to obtaining a marriage license is removed. To do anything less is a shameful attempt to cement their state on the wrong side of history. But what’s clear today is that our work isn’t done until every discriminatory law in this nation is wiped away. The time has come in this country for comprehensive federal LGBT non-discrimination protections. We now have to work harder than ever before to make sure LGBT Americans cannot be fired, evicted or denied services simply on the basis of the marriage license that they fought so hard to achieve.” : :