A divided Supreme Court made history on Friday, ruling that the Constitution ensures the right of same-sex couples to marry.
In a resounding decision that caps a remarkably fast transformation across the social, legal and political landscapes, the high court overturned marriage restrictions in Kentucky and three other states and ensured marriage equality for gay couples nationwide.
“Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
The court’s 5-4 majority concluded the Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection ensures the same-sex marriage rights. In a tweet that included the hashtag #LoveWins, President Barack Obama, whose administration argued in support of the ruling, called the decision a “big step in our march toward equality.”
The decision locks in same-sex marriage rights, guaranteeing that marriages that already have been performed must be recognized in every state. The only way to unravel the court’s action would be to amend the U.S. Constitution, a longshot that has fallen from political favor.
“The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,” Kennedy wrote.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer joined in the majority decision. All were appointed by Democratic presidents, and their support for same-sex marriage was never in question. Their decision was greeted with exultation outside the Supreme Court, and in a flurry of immediate reactions from advocacy groups.
“Today the Supreme Court made clear once and for all that gays and lesbians are not second-class citizens and that our law recognizes their loving and committed relationships as equal to all others,” declared Caroline Fredrickson, president of the liberal American Constitution Society.
In dissent, Republican-appointed Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito likewise voiced their positions foreshadowed by their prior opinions. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. also dissented.
“The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact, and the furthest extension one can even imagine, of the Court’s claimed power to create ‘liberties’ that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention,” Scalia wrote.
Kennedy’s authorship of the court’s majority opinion had been widely anticipated, because of his seniority and his past actions.
The 78-year-old Sacramento, Calif., native previously authored the 2013 decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act’s prohibition on same-sex couples receiving federal benefits. A decade earlier, Kennedy wrote the decision striking down a Texas law banning homosexual sodomy. In 1996, he wrote the ruling striking down a Colorado ballot measure targeting gay rights.
Kennedy’s reasoning in the 2013 Defense of Marriage Act decision, in particular, foreshadowed the final same-sex marriage case. He concluded in the earlier case that “no legitimate purpose” was accomplished by benefit restrictions that simply served “to disparage and to injure” same-sex couples.
On the same day that Kennedy issued the 2013 Defense of Marriage Act ruling, the Supreme Court sidestepped an opportunity to decide whether the Constitution protects same-sex marriage rights. Instead, the court ruled narrowly then on a California case. Whether it was intentional or not, the delay effectively let the legal and political moment ripen before the high court acted.
The multiple cases decided Friday, consolidated under the name Obergefell v. Hodges, challenged marriage restrictions in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Michigan.
In 2004, 74.5 percent of Kentucky voters ratified a state constitutional amendment that declares only marriage between “one man and one woman” to be valid. The second type of restriction under challenge, like one imposed in Ohio, prohibited the recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Ohio resident James Obergefell’s 2013 marriage in Maryland to his ailing longtime partner, the late John Arthur, wasn’t recognized by the state of Ohio. While Arthur has since passed away, Obergefell has been showing up at the Supreme Court for decision days in recent weeks in anticipation of the same-sex marriage decision.
“Far from seeking to devalue marriage, the petitioners seek it for themselves because of their respect – and need – for its privileges and responsibilities,” Kennedy wrote. “And their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment.”
The four states whose laws were struck down Friday were among the shrinking number to limit marriage. All told, 37 states and the District of Columbia already allow same-sex marriage, either as a result of a court decision or because of the state’s own action. A court ruling in the other direction could have caused considerable confusion in sorting out everyone’s legal status.
Underscoring the shifting tide of public sentiment, 63 percent of U.S. residents surveyed in a CNN/ORC International poll in February said they thought gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry, up from 49 percent in August 2010.
Many politicians, too, have taken note.
As recently as 2004, then-President George W. Bush saw political advantage in championing a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples. Now, while Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas introduced in April the familiar constitutional amendment limiting marriage, he has failed to attracted any Senate co-sponsors.
“In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were,” Kennedy wrote. “As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.”
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.