History of State Same-Sex Marriage Laws: A Look Back

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry. Prior to this ruling, the history of same-sex marriage for the American LGBTQ community was consistently in flux across states.

From its early beginnings, both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage have asserted controversial arguments concerning the definition, application, and legality of marriage and domestic partnerships as it applies to transgender and gay couples.

Beginning in 2003, when lawmakers in Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, legislatures in many states faced the same challenge. Twelve years later, the high court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges required all states to recognize the equal protection of marriage laws, regardless of sexual orientation.

This article looks back at state same-sex marriage laws from different state legislatures prior to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized it nationwide.

Marriage Equality and Civil Rights

Most human rights activists believe same-sex couples should have the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples. This is a simple question of civil rights. This argument relies on the constitutional concepts of equal protection and due process. Same-sex couples have the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples.

In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to acknowledge this and granted same-sex couples the right to wed. Belgium followed suit two years later. South Africa was the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage through court rulings in 2006.

Gay rights entered the civil rights movement in the United States with the Stonewall Riots of 1969. During the 1970s, gays and lesbians argued that sexual orientation was as much a part of one's identity as race or gender. Unfortunately, state laws did not recognize this. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, gay partners found themselves shut out of hospitals that did not recognize their domestic partnership as valid.

In 1984, Berkeley, California, became the first city in America to grant civil union status to same-sex partners. This lets partners share insurance benefits. In 1985, West Hollywood offered a domestic partnership registry to all residents. Civil unions provided the only alternative to marriage until the early 2000s.

Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage Laws

The primary opposition to same-sex marriage laws has come from conservative religious groups. These groups cite traditional Judeo-Christian, Islamic, and other religious texts.

Their arguments regarding procreation, sexual acts, and traditional family units and values were refuted in the Obergefell caseThe Supreme Court ruling did not support these notions. 

Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)

In 1996, as a response to pressure from opponents of same-sex marriage and religious groups, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This created a federal definition of marriage between a man and a woman and prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages for tax benefits, insurance, immigration, and other federal benefits.

A suite of cases involving same-sex couples seeking federal insurance and tax benefits on behalf of their partners challenged DOMA. The one that reached the Supreme Court was United States v. Windsor. In 2010, Edith Windsor of New York attempted to claim the federal tax exemption for surviving spouses on her same-sex partner's estate but was denied under DOMA. The New York and Appellate Court held that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling in a 5-4 decision. On the same day, the high court ruled in Hollingsworth, allowing same-sex marriages to resume in California. Following these rulings, the Obama administration began extending other federal rights to same-sex couples and reducing its defense of anti-same-sex lawsuits.

Obergefell v. Hodges and Same-Sex Marriage Law

Two years after the decision in Windsor, six lower-court consolidated cases under the title Obergefell v. Hodges came before the U.S. Supreme Court. This case was the culmination of lawsuits in four states involving:

  • 16 couples
  • Seven children
  • A widower
  • An adoption agency
  • And a funeral home director

All lower-court rulings had found for the plaintiffs. The rulings held that the laws in their states had violated equal protection and due process.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in 2015 and upheld the lower court rulings. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that same-sex couples had the same rights and privileges as opposite-sex couples. The ruling overturned the decision in Baker v. Nelson, which had been precedent for over 40 years.

The full repeal of DOMA was implicit in the ruling of Obergefell. The actual repeal would come with the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act. President Joe Biden signed the RFMA in 2022 because of fierce backlash against LGBT rights and same-sex relationships. The RFMA requires all states to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages and protects religious freedom.

History of Same-Sex Marriage Laws by State

See below for the history of same-sex marriage laws for 35 states, prior to the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.


In October 2014, the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska legalized same-sex marriage with its decision in the case of Hamby v. Parnell.


The U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona legalized same-sex marriage in October 2014 through decisions in two cases: Connolly v. Jeanes and Majors v. Horne. Before these cases, the state had prohibited same-sex marriage via statute (since 1996) and an amendment to the Arizona Constitution (2008).


In 2008, opponents of same-sex marriage in California put Proposition 8 on the ballot. This proposition would have amended the California constitution and legally recognized only marriages between "a man and a woman." Prop 8 passed in 2008, in part due to extensive lobbying and confusing language.

Opponents filed suit claiming the proposition violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of both California's and the U.S. Constitution. Supporters of Proposition 8 wanted to defend the lawsuit, but the State of California declined to do so.

In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that private parties lacked standing to defend a state constitutional amendment if the state would not do so. The suit was dismissed for lack of standing. Hollingsworth would be cited in the later case against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the decision in Hollingsworth et al. v. Perry and overturned Proposition 8 (banning same-sex marriage) by ruling that the appellants lacked standing to appeal the case. Soon after the Court's ruling, California courts began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.


On July 9, 2014, a Colorado district court ruled on the consolidated cases of Brinkman v. Long and McDaniel-Miccio v. Hickenlooper. It held that the state's ban on same-sex marriage violated equal protection and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


Connecticut legalized the marriage of same-sex couples on November 12, 2008. Connecticut became the third state (after California and Massachusetts) to authorize same-sex couples to marry. The Connecticut Supreme Court held in Kerrigan v. Commissioner of Public Health that the Connecticut State Constitution doesn't permit the state to exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage.


When Governor Jack Markell signed HB 75 into law on May 7, 2013, Delaware became the latest colonial state to allow same-sex marriage. Like Rhode Island, Delaware also made civil unions a thing of the past.


In Brenner v. Scott, a Florida district court ruled that the state's law and constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. The ruling was issued on August 21, 2014, but it became effective on January 6, 2015.


The Hawaii Supreme Court's 1993 decision in Baehr v. Lewin (Miike) marked the beginning of serious litigation on same-sex unions. In Baehr, the plaintiff sued the State of Hawaii, saying that the state's refusal to issue her and her partner a marriage license was illegal discrimination.

Hawaii's constitution required the state to show a "compelling state interest" in why the two women should not be legally married. The state could not meet its burden. The case did not present a federal question, so it did not go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2013, Governor Neil Abercrombie signed Senate Bill 1 and granted same-sex couples the legal right to wed.


Latta v. Otter, decided by an Idaho district court and affirmed by the Ninth Circuit, prevented the state from enforcing its ban on same-sex marriage, thus, legalizing it in October 2014.


Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 10 in 2013, legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. The law took effect on June 1, 2014.


In Baskin v. Bogan, a federal district court found for the plaintiffs, who were challenging Indiana's denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the ruling in September 2014. Same-sex marriage was officially legalized in October 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court denied a writ of certiorari by the defendants.


After a flurry of court cases concerning same-sex marriage in the nation, Iowa allowed same-sex unions when the court in Varnum v. Brien ruled that the ban on same-sex marriage under the constitution was a form of unconstitutional sexual orientation discrimination. The law took effect on April 3, 2009.


The Maine legislature passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009, but it was repealed by popular vote later that year. But gay marriage was again made legal in 2012, this time in the general election. It passed by 53 percent, which is the same percentage of voters who rejected it in 2009.


A bill legalizing same-sex marriage was passed in 2012 and signed by the governor, with an enactment date of Jan. 1, 2013. But the law was put to a referendum in 2012, known as Question 6 on the general election ballot. It passed with the support of more than 52 percent of Maryland voters.


Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples beginning in 2004. The Supreme Court ruled in Goodrich v. Department of Public Health that the state could not deny civil marriage to two members of the same sex who wished to marry, and that the same laws and procedures that govern traditional marriage also apply to same-sex marriage.


The Minnesota same-sex marriage bill reframes all marriages as "civil marriages," removing gender from the state's definition of eligible partners to a marriage, and allowed marriages on August 1, 2013. The Minnesota House voted 75-59 in favor of same-sex marriage on May 9, 2013. The state Senate voted 37-30 in favor of same-sex marriage on May 13, 2013, and Governor Mark Dayton signed the bill on May 14, 2013.


In the case of Rolando v. Fox, a federal court ruled in November 2014 that Montana's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Although the state appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell mooted the appeal.


Plaintiffs in Sevcik v. Sandoval filed a complaint on behalf of several same-sex couples who had been denied marriage licenses in Nevada. The U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada ruled against the plaintiffs, so they appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2012. On October 7, 2014, the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, effectively legalizing same-sex marriage in Nevada.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire legalized same-sex marriage after Governor John Lynch became only the second Governor to sign a bill (HB 73) that allowed same-sex unions. The new law extending marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples took effect on January 1, 2010.

New Jersey

Same-sex couples in New Jersey became eligible for marriage licenses in 2013, following the New Jersey Supreme Court's refusal to stay a lower court's ruling that denying gay marriage violated New Jersey's constitution. The ruling was in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

New Mexico

New Mexico's Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 19, 2013, that the statutes prohibiting gays and lesbians from marrying violated both the state and federal constitutions. Since New Mexico's constitution does not expressly define marriage as between a man and a woman, the Court's opinion immediately legalized same-sex marriage in the state.

New York

On June 24, 2011, New York officially enacted the Marriage Equality Act, becoming the sixth state in the United States to legalize same-sex marriages. The legislation passed after several weeks of intense negotiations and fundraising and lobbying efforts on both sides of the issue.

North Carolina

The state has recognized same-sex marriage since October 2014 when a federal court decided in General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper that North Carolina's denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples was unconstitutional.


Same-sex couples have been legally permitted to marry in the state since the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Oklahoma to recognize same-sex marriage on October 6, 2014 (after the resolution of Bishop v. United States, formerly Bishop v. Oklahoma).


Same-sex marriage became legal in Oregon on May 19, 2014, with the federal court decision in Geiger v. Kitzhaber.


The decision in the federal case Whitewood v. Wolf - decided on May 20, 2014 - legalized same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island became the sixth and final New England state to approve marriage equality -- and the 10th nationwide (at the time). The Rhode Island legislature passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage on May 2, 2013; it went into effect on August 1, 2013.

South Carolina

Same-sex marriage has been legal in South Carolina since the federal court decision in Condon v. Haley in November 2014.


In Kitchen v. Herbert, a federal court found that Utah's same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional, and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. However, the decision was stayed, pending petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the U.S. Supreme Court denied the petition on October 6, 2014, the Tenth Circuit lifted its stay.


In 1999, The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. Vermont that same-sex couples are "entitled under Chapter I, Article 7, of the Vermont Constitution to the same benefits and protections afforded by Vermont law to married opposite-sex couples."

However, like other states, the Vermont legislature punted and created "civil unions" equivalent to marriage until 2009, when Vermont became the 5th state to allow same-sex marriage.


A district court decided in favor of the plaintiffs (Bostic v. Schaefer) who had challenged Virgina's refusal to sanction same-sex marriages. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling. Same-sex marriage officially became legal on October 6, 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court denied a writ of certiorari, effectively allowing the circuit court decision to stand.


On February 8, 2012, the Washington State Senate passed a bill that legalized same-sex marriage. The Senate passed the bill 28-21, with four Republican Senators crossing party lines in the vote. The bill was signed into law by Governor Christine Gregoire but challenged by a petition.

The law was put to a referendum on the 2012 general election ballot as Referendum 74, where it passed with 51.8 percent of the vote.

West Virginia

In McGee v. Cole, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia overturned the state's statutory ban on same-sex marriage on November 7, 2014.

Washington, D.C.

The District of Columbia overwhelmingly passed legislation (by an 11-2 vote) in early December 2009 when it recognized same-sex marriages as a legal union. The law became official in March 2010.


On October 17, 2014, a federal court ruled in Guzzo v. Mead that the state's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Same-sex marriage was officially legalized on October 21, 2014, when the state officially declined to appeal the decision.

Get Legal Help With Your Questions About State Same-Sex Marriage Laws

The recent overturning of Roe v. Wade and the new laws in states like Texas, Alabama, and Tennessee are examples of how fluid the interpretation of the law can be without constitutional amendments. If you have questions about prenups, how to apply for a marriage certificate, or the legal implications of having children, now is the time to find out.

Additionally, marriage laws have changed dramatically. If you have a question about same-sex marriage laws in your state, ask a family law attorney in your area for help. An experienced lawyer can give you information about the current state of the law and any legal protections you may want to consider. 


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