Same-Sex Marriage and the Supreme Court
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed November 18, 2018
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Legal recognition of same-sex marriage grew rapidly right after Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex unions in 2003. But recognition of same-sex marriage rights were not universal until the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision protecting same-sex marriage rights in all states. In reaching its decision that the U.S. Constitution guarantees marriage rights to gay couples, the Court cited the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Court first took on the issue of same-sex marriage in 2013 when it overturned key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The following is a summary of same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court, specifically the cases that eventually would lead to the landmark Obergefell decision.
Lower Court Rulings on Same-Sex Marriage Following Windsor
In 2013, the Supreme Court found in United States v. Windsor that Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. This section prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages that were permitted under state law. The Court found the federal law to interfere with the states' rights to define and regulate marriage. It also found that the law sought to injure gays and lesbians as a class, in violation of due process.
Following Windsor, many court cases successfully challenged state bans on same-sex marriage on the grounds that these bans violated the equal rights and due process of gays and lesbians. Over sixty state and federal court decisions have ruled that states must allow same-sex marriage or recognize marriages from other states.
Disagreement Between Courts
In November of 2014, the Sixth Circuit court became the first, and only, federal court of appeal to uphold state bans on same-sex marriage. It's this decision that the Supreme Court ultimately addressed in its Obergefell decision. Unlike other courts, the Sixth Circuit refused to extend the logic of Windsor -- which struck down a federal law that contradicted state-sanctioned same-sex marriages -- to state bans.
It found that it was bound by Supreme Court precedent from Baker v. Nelson. In 1972, the Supreme Court had refused to hear an appeal regarding Minnesota's refusal to allow same-sex marriage. In a one-sentence court order, the Supreme Court said the case did not raise a "substantial federal question."
The Sixth Circuit's decision was in conflict with the decisions of the Fourth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuit courts, which had all struck down similar bans. The Ninth Circuit, for example, found that Idaho and Nevada's same-sex marriage bans violated the Equal Protection Clause by discriminating against individuals on the basis of sexuality and gender, denying same sex couples the benefits of marriage and giving them "second-class status."
Same-Sex Marriage and the Supreme Court: Four Important Cases
On January 16th, 2015, the Supreme Court chose to review the following four same-sex marriage cases:
- Bourke v. Beshear: challenging Kentucky's refusal to grant same-sex marriage licenses or to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Kentucky had refused to recognize Gregory Bourke's legal marriage to his partner in Canada and had refused to allow other same-sex plaintiffs to marry in Kentucky.
- DeBoer v. Snyder: challenging Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage. Under Michigan law, April DeBoer was unable to obtain a second parent adoption of her partner's children because Michigan law restricted second parent adoption to married couples.
- Obergefell v. Hodges: challenging Ohio's refusal to acknowledge same-sex marriages from other states. Ohio had refused to list James Obergefell on the death certificate of his partner of 22 years, whom he had married in Maryland.
- Tanco v. Haslam: challenging Tennessee's refusal to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Tennessee had refused to recognize legal marriages from other states that were not between one man and one woman.
The plaintiffs had initially won in all four cases, with federal district courts ruling that the states must allow for same-sex marriage or recognize same-sex marriages from other states. But on appeal, the Sixth Circuit upheld the state bans.
In hearing the four cases from the Sixth Circuit, the Supreme Court addressed two questions at the heart of the same-sex marriage debate:
- Does the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection and due process, require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?
- Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize same-sex marriages lawfully licensed and performed in another state?
Supreme Court's Final Word on Same-Sex Marriage: Obergefell
The Supreme Court heard arguments on same-sex marriage in the Spring of 2015 and issued its ruling on June 26, 2015. The Court addressed whether the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee that same-sex couples be treated the same as opposite-sex couples for marriage. It also examined the extent to which states could define marriage on their own, without interference from the federal government.
A slim majority (5-4) of Justices found in favor of the plaintiffs, who were denied a marriage license in Ohio on the basis of their sexual orientation. The Court published the following holding in its Obergefell opinion:
The Fourteenth Amendment 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 their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.
Therefore, all states must issue marriage licenses to otherwise eligible couples regardless of sexual orientation. The ruling also requires states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Get Professional Legal Help With Same-Sex Marriage
Given the many twists and turns involved in the struggle for same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court's various rulings, you may still have some questions. If you have further concerns or issues related to same-sex marriage law, you may want to consult with an experienced family law attorney near you.
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