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Marriage Equality

What the Marriage Ruling Actually Says

What the Marriage Ruling Actually Says


Discover how the high court concluded that the U.S. Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.


The U.S. Supreme Court just effectively made marriage equality the law in all 50 states. The 5-4 majority decision, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, is a dense 33 pages, followed by lengthy dissents from Chief Justice Thomas Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.

The overarching conclusion reached by the Supreme Court is that the U.S. Constitution does require states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Further, that same founding document requires states to recognize legal same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Kennedy concludes his ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges with a soaring, eloquent paragraph that was trending on Twitter:

"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."

Read on to get a deeper understanding of how the court arrived at this historic opinion, complete with quotes from the ruling.

1. The Fourteenth Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

"The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons ... to define and express their identity. 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.

"The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. ...

"Applying these established tenets, the Court has long held the right to marry is protected by the Constitution. ... Over time and in other contexts, the Court has reiterated that the right to marry is fundamental under the Due Process Clause. ...

"This analysis compels the conclusion that same-sex couples may exercise the right to marry. The four principles and traditions to be discussed demonstrate that the reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply with equal force to same-sex couples."

3. The Due Process Clause of Fourteenth Amendment also requires states to recognize legal marriages performed in other states.

"The right of same-sex couples to marry that is part of the liberty promised by the Fourteenth Amendment is derived, too, from that Amendment's guarantee of the equal protection of the laws. ... Each concept -- liberty and equal protection-- leads to a stronger understanding of the other."

4. It's not about "gay marriage," it's about "marriage."

"Loving did not ask about a 'right to interracial marriage;' Turner did not ask about a 'right of inmates to marry;' and Zablocki did not ask about a 'right of fathers with unpaid child support duties to marry.' Rather, each case inquired about the right to marry in its comprehensive sense ... That principle applies here.

"These considerations lead to the conclusion that the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty. The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. No longer may this liberty be denied to them."

5. Marriage is a fundamentally important institution.

"The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation. ...There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices.

"From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. ... Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations."

The same-sex couples in these cases are not looking to "devalue" the institution of marriage, writes the court. Rather, "it is the enduring importance of marriage that underlies the petitioners' contentions. This, they say, is their whole point."

"Far from seeking to devalue marriage, the petitioners seek it for themselves because of their respect -- and need -- for its privileges and responsibilities. And their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment."

6. Marriage matters for children.

"Excluding same-sex couples from marriage thus conflicts with a central premise of the right to marry. Without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser. They also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life. The marriage laws at issue here thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples."

7. But marriage is not only about children.

"That is not to say 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. In light of precedent protecting the right of a married couple not to procreate, it cannot be said the Court or the States have conditioned the right to marry on the capacity or commitment to procreate. The constitutional marriage right has many aspects, of which childbearing is only one."

8. Marriage, as an institution, has constantly evolved. And we're a better country for that fact.

"The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change ... Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations."

Addressing the arguments by marriage equality opponents who claim that opposite-sex marriage is the only form allowed by "tradition," the court delves into a history lesson on the changing nature of the institution, focusing largely on how marriage shifted from being a male-dominated, property-oriented contract to reflect the growing respect for women's autonomy and liberty.

"These and other developments in the institution of marriage over the past centuries were not mere superficial changes. Rather, they worked deep transformations in its structure, affecting aspects of marriage long viewed by many as essential.

"These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage."

9. "Choices about marriage shape an individual's destiny."

"The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy. ... Like choices concerning contraception, family relationships, procreation, and childrearing, all of which are protected by the Constitution, decisions concerning marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make."

10. Fundamental rights are not subject to popular opinion.

"There may be an initial inclination in these cases to proceed with caution -- to await further legislation, litigation, and debate. ... Yet there has been far more deliberation than this argument acknowledges. There have been referenda, legislative debates, and grassroots campaigns, as well as countless studies, papers, books, and other popular and scholarly writings. There has been extensive litigation in state and federal courts.

The Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, so long as that process does not abridge fundamental rights. ...

The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right. ... It is of no moment whether advocates of same-sex marriage now enjoy or lack momentum in the democratic process. The issue before the Court here is the legal question whether the Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry."

11. Ruling against marriage equality violates the 14th Amendment, and the Sixth Circuit was wrong to do so.

Today's decision from the Supreme Court overturned the ruling of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which last November became the only federal appellate court in the country since 2013 to uphold marriage bans in cases out of Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

"A ruling against same-sex couples ... would be unjustified under the Fourteenth Amendment," writes Kennedy, before turning directly to the Sixth Circuit's decision that rejected existing and growing legal precedent in support of marriage equality.

"Faced with a disagreement among the Courts of Appeals -- a disagreement that caused impermissible geographic variation in the meaning of federal law -- the Court granted review to determine whether same-sex couples may exercise the right to marry.

Were the Court to uphold the challenged laws as constitutional, it would teach the Nation that these laws are in accord with our society's most basic compact. Were the Court to stay its hand to allow slower, case-by-case determination of the required availability of specific public benefits to same-sex couples, it still would deny gays and lesbians many rights and responsibilities intertwined with marriage."

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Sunnivie Brydum

Sunnivie is the managing editor of The Advocate, and an award-winning journalist whose passion is covering the politics of equality and elevating the unheard stories of our community. Originally from Colorado, she and her spouse now live in Los Angeles, along with their three fur-children: dogs Luna and Cassie Doodle, and "Meow Button" Tilly.
Sunnivie is the managing editor of The Advocate, and an award-winning journalist whose passion is covering the politics of equality and elevating the unheard stories of our community. Originally from Colorado, she and her spouse now live in Los Angeles, along with their three fur-children: dogs Luna and Cassie Doodle, and "Meow Button" Tilly.