History Breaking: U.S. Supreme Court Recognizes Right to Same-Sex Marriage

The U.S. Supreme Court has declared same-sex couples have a constitutional right to be married, in a 5-4 decision citing the Fourteenth Amendment, which declares that all citizens have equal rights.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, long considered to be the swing vote on this issue, read the Court’s decision from the bench. The rest of the Court’s traditional conservatives all dissented and wrote lengthly opinions stridently opposing LGBT equality.

The Court majority held that the Constitution requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex, and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when a marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out of state. Before Friday's ruling, same-sex couples could marry in three dozen states, but federal appeals courts have disagreed over whether states must allow and recognize the marriages.

"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... 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," the majority opinion read. "The imposition of this disability on gays and lesbians serves to disrespect and subordinate them. And the Equal Protection Clause, like the Due Process Clause, prohibits this unjustified infringement of the fundamental right to marry."

It concludes, "No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family... [The challengers] ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

While the ruling was expected based on past opinions by Kennedy, it is still a major civil rights milestone. It also appears not to change the legal landscape to make it harder to challenge LGBT discrimination in existing state law, or its absence of protections by intentional omission, which is what equality activists have been hoping for.

The majority bases its conclusion that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right on "four principles and traditions":

  • The right to person choice in marriage is "inherent in the concept of individual autonomy."
  • "Two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals."
  • Marriage safeguards children and families.
  • Marriage is a keystone to our social order.

The dissenting opinions were very strident, though Chief Justice John Roberts took a more measured tone when commenting from the bench. He said the victors should celebrate, but he would have preferred that states work this issue out on their own.

"Those who founded our country would not recognize the majority’s conception of the judicial role," Roberts wrote. "They after all risked their lives and fortunes for the precious right to govern themselves. They would never have imagined yielding that right on a question of social policy to unaccountable and unelected judges. And they certainly would not have been satisfied by a system empowering judges to override policy judgments so long as they do so after 'a quite extensive discussion.'"

Justice Antonin Scalia, the most Court's outspoken conservative, said in a footnote accompanying his dissent, "If, even as the price to be paid for a fifth vote, I ever joined an opinion for the Court that began: ‘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,’ I would hide my head in a bag. 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 LGBT equality movement will now shift its focus in many states where conservative governors and lawmakers have vowed not to abide by the decision, and where litigation may go on for years to secure a wider array of equality rights under the law. As was the case in the late 1960s when the Court legalized interracial marriage, there is likely to be a cultural backlash that will emerge, and fade away after a few years.

President Obama, speaking at the White House, praised the ruling while alluding to the long and ongoing struggle for civil rights.

"It will end the uncertainty hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples face from not knowing whether their marriage, legitimate in the eyes of one state, will remain if they decide to move [to] or even visit another," he said. "This ruling will strengthen all of our communities by offering to all loving same-sex couples the dignity of marriage across this great land."
"In my second inaugural address, I said that if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well," he continued. "It is gratifying to see that principle enshrined into law by this decision."

(This report will be updated throughout the morning as the formal decision is released and reactions are issued.)

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