There were two questions before the Court. First, whether states could ban same-sex marriage. Second, whether states were required to recognize lawful marriages performed in another state. In the majority opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court held that marriage is a fundamental right to be protected by the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In addressing why marriage is a fundamental right, the Court expanded on four principles and traditions and found that each of the principles and traditions apply with equal force to same-sex couples:
First, the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy. Justice Kennedy stated that “choices about marriage shape an individual’s destiny,” and went on to quote the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, “it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.”
Second, the right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals. Justice Kennedy remarked, “Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”
Third, the right to marry is a fundamental right as it “safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education. “ In recognizing their parents’ relationship, marriage allows children “to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.” Marriage affords permanency and stability which are key to children’s best interests. In its analysis, the Court cautions that this language is not meant to imply that the right to marry is less meaningful for those who do not or cannot have children. “An ability, desire, or promise to procreate is not and has not been a prerequisite for a valid marriage in any State.”
Fourth and last, marriage is the “keystone of our social order.” It remains a “building block of our national community.” Throughout our nation’s history, states have made marriage the basis for many governmental rights, benefits and responsibilities, including but not limited to: taxation; inheritance and property rights; rules of intestate succession, spousal privilege in the law of evidence; hospital access; medical decision-making authority; adoption rights, rights and benefits of survivors; birth and death certificates; professional ethics rules; campaign finance restrictions; workers’ compensation benefits; health insurance; and child custody, support and visitation rules. By denying same-sex couples the right to marry, they are excluded from these benefits. The Court stated, “same-sex couples are consigned to an instability many opposite-sex couples would deem intolerable in their own lives…It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the Nation’s society.”
In addition to the due process argument, the Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause requires the states to license and recognize same-sex marriage. The Court emphasized that in interpreting the Equal Protection Clause, the Court has previously recognized that “new insights and societal understandings can reveal unjustified inequality within our most fundamental institutions that once passed unnoticed and unchallenged.” The Court offered examples of the erosion of the doctrine of coverture, under which a husband and wife were treated by states as one, male-dominated legal entity. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Court invoked equal protection principles to invalidate laws allowing for such sex-based inequality in marriage. The Court stated, “This dynamic also applies to same-sex marriage. 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…and the Equal Protection Clause, like the Due Process Clause, prohibits this unjustified infringement of the fundamental right to marry.”
The issues in this case stemmed from state court rulings out of Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee, but at the center of the case was the story of petitioner, James Obergefell, a plaintiff in the Ohio case, who met his partner, John Arthur over twenty years ago. In 2011, Arthur was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Obergefell and Arthur decided to marry, traveling from Ohio to Maryland, where same-sex marriage was legal. Arthur was so ill at the time, it was difficult for him to move. They were wed inside a medical transport plane on the tarmac in Baltimore. Just three months later, Arthur died. Ohio law, not recognizing same-sex marriage, did not permit Obergefell to be listed as a surviving spouse on Arthur’s death certificate. Justice Kennedy commented that, “by statute, they must remain strangers even in death…” Obergefell filed suit to be shown as the surviving spouse on Arthur’s death certificate, and has, in many ways, become the face of the movement for marriage equality. As Justice Kennedy stated, “Their stories reveal that they seek not to denigrate marriage but rather to live their lives, or honor their spouse’s memory, joined by its bond.”
In the conclusion of the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy ruled that the right to marry is a fundament right inherent in the liberty of the person, which must be protected under the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and it naturally follows that, as the right to marry is a fundamental right, there is now “no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character. “
The United States is now the 21st country to legalize same-sex marriage.
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