Same-Sex Marriage: Understanding Obergefell v. Hodges
Obergefell v. Hodges is one of the most consequential civil rights cases in United States history. This U.S. Supreme Court case recognized same-sex couples' fundamental right to marry. The Court found that the due process clause and equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed these rights.
The Court's decision in Obergefell overruled state laws banning or refusing to recognize same-sex marriage. This case changed the landscape of marriage equality in the U.S. by removing artificial barriers to marriage equality.
Obergefell was not the first time the modern Court intervened in a marriage rights controversy. In 1967, the Court found in favor of the plaintiffs in Loving v. Virginia, recognizing interracial marriage as a marriage right. Although Loving was a landmark case, it took the Court another 48 years to recognize the marriage rights of gay and lesbian couples.
This article provides an overview of Obergefell and its impact on same-sex marriage.
Same-Sex Marriage in America
In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) became law. DOMA established an exclusive definition of marriage, limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. DOMA prohibited federal government agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages. Six years later, in 2003, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.
Between 2003 and 2013, when the Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the status of same-sex marriage was not the same among the states. In some states, sexual orientation did not matter. Gay and lesbian couples could marry or choose an alternative to civil marriage. Other states refused to recognize out-of-state gay marriages. Or they enacted (state) constitutional amendments restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court settled this issue in Obergefell. It found that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a fundamental right to marriage.
Scotus and Same-Sex Marriage
Obergefell was not the first time the Court considered the constitutionality of gay marriage.
United States v. Windsor
In 2013, the Court found in favor of the petitioner, Edith Windsor, in United States v. Windsor. Windsor married her partner, Thea Spyer, in Canada. New York State recognized their marriage. After her death, Windsor inherited Spyer's estate and claimed a federal inheritance tax exemption. The IRS denied her claim because her marriage was invalid under the Defense of Marriage Act.
Windsor sued the federal government in federal court and won at district and appellate court levels. The federal government appealed to the Supreme Court, where it lost. The Court found that DOMA denied Windsor's equal protection rights under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This decision only applied to federal law, not state law.
The tide changed with Obergefell. Obergefell v. Hodges does not refer to one case or one state ban. It is a collection of consolidated same-sex marriage cases. The U.S. Supreme Court has the final say on issues of constitutional law. One of the goals of the Court is the even application of constitutional law across the country. This means people should get the same result in different jurisdictions.
After Windsor, some states, like Texas, refused to acknowledge same-sex marriages. They also refused to issue marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples.
Six cases came before the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. That court refused to apply the holding in Windsor to same-sex marriage law cases.
In 2012, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in four of these six cases: Obergefell v. Hodges (Ohio), Bourke v. Beshear (Kentucky), DeBoer v. Synder (Michigan), and Tanco v. Haslam (Tennessee). The respondents included state officials from each state in the consolidated case.
In the title case, James Obergefell married his partner, John Arthur, in Maryland. After Arthur's death, the Ohio Department of Health refused to list Obergefell as the surviving spouse on Arthur's death certificate.
A majority (5-4) of the Court, including Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, found in favor of the petitioner. They all joined the majority opinion authored by Justice Kennedy. The Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to permit same-sex marriages and recognize out-of-state marriages. In arriving at their decision, the majority relied on the fundamental rights and the concept of individual autonomy in Griswold v. Connecticut.
All four conservative members of the Court — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — dissented. They each wrote separate opinions, suggesting the Court usurped a power that belongs to the people. Justice Thomas believed the majority decision stretched the boundaries of substantive due process.
Obergefell rapidly changed the social order in America. The traditional definition of marriage changed overnight. After the Obergefell decision, some states and Republican elected officials opposed the Court's ruling. In these states, officials refused to issue marriage licenses or include the name of a same-sex partner on birth certificates. Ultimately, the Court struck down these actions as unconstitutional.
Impact of Obergefell
Today married same-sex couples have the same rights as their opposite-sex couple peers. These rights include inheritance rights and spousal testimonial privilege.
Get Legal Help
Although same-sex marriage is legal in the U.S., it still faces strong opposition. An experienced local family law attorney can help you navigate same-sex marriage laws.
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