Gay marriage declared legal across the US in historic supreme court ruling
Same-sex marriages are now legal across the entirety of the United States after a historic supreme court ruling that declared attempts by conservative states to ban them unconstitutional.
In what may prove the most important civil rights case in a generation, five of the nine court justices determined that the right to marriage equality was enshrined under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.
Victory in the case – known as Obergefell v Hodges, after an Ohio man who sued the state to get his name listed on his late husband’s death certificate – capped years of campaigning by LGBT rights activists, high-powered attorneys and couples waiting decades for the justices to rule. It immediately led to scenes of jubilation from coast to coast, as campaigners, politicians and everyday people – gay, straight and in-between – hailed “a victory of love”.
The ruling, in which Justice Anthony Kennedy cast the deciding vote, means the number of states where gay marriage is legal will rise from 37 to 50.
“They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” Kennedy wrote in his opinion for the majority. “The Constitution grants them that right.”
‘The arc of history is quite clear’
Speaking from the White House, Barack Obama said the decision would “end the patchwork system we currently have”.
“This ruling is a victory for America,” the president said. “This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts: when all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free.”
Four liberal justices and Kennedy rejected claims made by lawyers during thelegal argument in April that marriage was defined by law solely to encourage procreation within stable family units – and therefore could only meaningfully apply to men and women.
“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,” wrote Kennedy.
“The petitioners in these cases seek to find that liberty by marrying someone of the same sex and having their marriages deemed lawful on the same terms and conditions as marriages between persons of the opposite sex,” he added.
Crucially, the majority ruling argues that the court has frequently exercised jurisdiction over the definition of marriage in previous cases and is not overstepping its constitutional role by intervening now.
“This Court’s cases have expressed constitutional principles of broader reach. In defining the right to marry these cases have identified essential attributes of that right based in history, tradition, and other constitutional liberties inherent in this intimate bond,” wrote Kennedy.
‘The right to marry is fundamental’
In a nod to an argument colorfully expressed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during the hearing, the ruling also rejects the notion that the state definition of marriage rests on the ability of couples to procreate.
“That is not to say the right to marry is less meaningful for those who do not or cannot have children,” writes Kennedy, after pointing out the advantages for children of same-sex couples. “An ability, desire, or promise to procreate is not and has not been a prerequisite for a valid marriage in any State.”
And in perhaps the most sweeping section of the lengthy ruling, Kennedy rejected the concern expressed by chief justice John Roberts that the court should not get too far ahead of traditional conceptions of marriage that are limited to a man and a woman.
“The right to marry is fundamental as a matter of history and tradition, but rights come not from ancient sources,” writes Kennedy. “They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era.”
In one of four separate dissents, Roberts attacked the decision, arguing: “This Court is not a legislature. 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.”
But the five justices in the majority argued that depriving them of marriage equality “serve[d] to disrespect and subordinate” gay and lesbians.
“It is now clear that the challenged laws burden the liberty of same-sex couples, and it must be further acknowledged that they abridge central precepts of equality,” they argued. “Especially against a long history of disapproval of their relationships, this denial to same-sex couples of the right to marry works a grave and continuing harm.”
Lawyers advising couples looking to take advantage of the historic ruling warned that it could take some time for states to react.
“Uniform implementation of the ruling state by state will undoubtedly take time,” said Robert Stanley, a partner in Beverly Hills family law firm Jaffe and Clemens. “Certainly, some states are expected to rebel and stall implementation as long as possible.”
The nation’s highest tribunal last weighed marriage equality in 2012, with challenges to California’s effective ban on same-sex marriages, known as Proposition 8, and a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (Doma).
The justices then ruled in favor of marriage equality proponents, but ducked the question of whether gay marriage was a constitutional right.
Roberta Kaplan, the lawyer who successfully argued the Doma case, said “there is nothing” in Friday’s ruling that she was concerned about that could lead to major legal challenges.
“This is the pinnacle of our success so far,” she told the Guardian. “It is hard for me to see now that any court, anywhere, state or federal, could possibly tolerate discrimination against gay people on any basis.”
The rulings nonetheless kicked off a wave of decisions among courts across the country that struck down state-level bans on same-sex marriage and accelerated a trend that has seen the number of states allowing such weddings soar from just two in 2008, to all 50 in 2015 – plus the District of Columbia, from where a national celebration was only beginning on Friday morning.
The US becomes the 21st nation to recognise same-sex marriage across the country.
“Love is love,” Obama said.
- Additional reporting by Nicky Woolf in New York, Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington, Steven W Thrasher in Buffalo, New York, George Chidi in Atlanta, Rory Carroll in San Francisco, Amanda Holpuch in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Tom Dart in New Orleans
Collected and summarised from: The Gurdian