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SCOTUS: Same-Sex Couples Have Fundamental Right to Marriage

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

The right to marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be denied to same-sex couples, the Supreme Court ruled this morning in Obergefell v. Hodges. The historic 5-4 opinion, authored by Justice Kennedy, extends the "fundamental right to marry" to gay and lesbian couples throughout the country, just eleven years after the country's first legally recognized same-sex marriages took place.

The decision, based on both due process and equal protection grounds, marks a major victory for the gay rights movement, which has seen a rapid shift from state and federal same-sex marriage bans to a judicial embrace of equal rights for same-sex couples. The opinion's release comes two days before anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the symbolic birth of the gay rights movement 46 years ago.

Four Principles Supporting Marriage Equality

The Court's opinion emphasizes four principles and traditions underlying the constitutional due process right to marriage equality. First, the right to personal choice in marriage decisions "is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy." Second, the right to marriage is fundamental, supporting a "union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals." Third, marriage safeguards children and families, both in material protections and symbolic recognition. Finally, marriage is, through Supreme Court precedent and "the Nation's traditions ... a keystone of our social order."

Viewed under these four principles, Kennedy wrote, same-sex marriage bans must fall, as inconsistent "with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry."

Not Limited by History

The opinion outright rejects the idea that rights must grow out of specific historical practices. "Rights come not from ancient sources alone," the Court stated, but also from our evolving understanding of liberty. Recognizing "the new insights and societal understandings" allows one to view previously unnoticed and unchallenged inequalities, which, under a modern light, offend the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

In practical matters, the decision means that same-sex couples may marry in the 14 states that still deny them that right and that already married couples will have their unions recognized throughout the country. 

The case also extends beyond marriage. The lead petitioner, James Obergefell, sued after the state of Ohio refused to list him on the death certificate of his partner of 22 years, whom he had married in Maryland. Obergefell will now have the right to be included on that last official record of his husband's life.

Haters Gonna Hate

The ruling drew strong dissents from the justices on the Court's most conservative wing, each of whom wrote their own dissent. Chief Justice Roberts accused the Court of applying the Constitution to solve a policy debate. He repeatedly cited Dread Scott and Lochner as presumably comparable examples of the judiciary overstepping its role.

Scalia, who also joined every other dissent, did not shy away from the histrionics. The Justice called today's decision a "judicial Putsch" which reveals that "my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court." This hubris and "o'erweening pride" certainly marks America's fall. Thanks for ruining democracy.

After the opinion was released, hundreds of people celebrated in front of the Supreme Court. Freedom to Marry, a gay marriage advocacy group, announced it would shut down, having accomplished its mission.

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