The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the United States Friday in a closely divided ruling that will stand as a milestone in its 226-year history.
The justices ruled 5-4 that states cannot deny gay men and lesbians the same marriage rights enjoyed for thousands of years by opposite-sex couples. Within days if not hours, the decision is expected to trigger same-sex marriages in states that still ban the practice.
“They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his 28-page ruling. “The Constitution grants them that right.”
Kennedy announced the decision to a hushed courtroom; his colleagues watched stone-faced. As the sweep of his decision became clear, some in the audience embraced and cried.
“The past alone does not rule the present. The nature of injustice is that we do not always see it in our own time,” he said.
In a show of the court’s discord, Chief Justice John Roberts read for 10 minutes from his dissent, accusing the majority of overstepping their bounds and ignoring the Constitution. “Today, five lawyers have ordered every state to change their definition of marriage,” Roberts said. “Just who do we think we are?”
Roberts delivered a similar message to supporters of same-sex marriage: “By all means, celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal,” he said. “But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”
The landmark ruling ends a legal battle that had brewed in the states for 45 years, from Minnesota in the 1970s to Hawaii in the 1990s and New England after the turn of the century. The final turning point came in 2013, when the high court forced the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages and allowed them to resume in California.
Had the court upheld gay marriage bans in Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky, it would have jeopardized federal court rulings striking down similar bans in 20 of the 37 states where same-sex marriage has been declared legal. Quickly, the number of gay marriage states could have been cut in half.
Instead, the court’s finding that same-sex couples have a right to marry under the Constitution will make gay marriage legal in the remaining 13 states, from Georgia to North Dakota. And it will make battles over religious-freedom and non-discrimination laws the next battleground in the nation’s continuing struggle with gay rights.
Kennedy had authored the last three major rulings advancing the cause of gay rights, including the 2013 opinion in United States v. Windsor striking down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. For that reason, he was widely expected to be the author of the ruling that brings gay marriage to all 50 states.
All four of the more conservative justices dissented separately. Chief Justice John Roberts argued that whether gay marriage is right or wrong is a question that belongs in the nation’s legislatures,not its courts.
“The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment,” Roberts said. “The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this court’s precedent.”
Jim Obergefell, the Ohio man whose name graces the case, Obergefell v. Hodges, was in court for the momentous ruling. He married his partner, John Arthur, in Maryland shortly before Arthur died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and he has been coming to the court every morning in order to be present for the decision.