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Five Takeaways from The Supreme Court Ruling in Favor of Same-Sex Marriage

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The case made its way from the District Court in Ohio, where it was originally filed and heard in 2013. Five of the nine justices decided for the plaintiffs, and four dissented. Here are the five most important takeaways from the decision.

What was changed by the decision: Full marriage rights and benefits for all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, as well as recognition of those rights in every state and province of the United States. Before Obergefell, there was the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA was enacted as federal law in 1996 and explicitly defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman only. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that section 3 of the act denying federal benefits to unions that were legal under state law violated the constitution inUnited States v. Windsor. This left DOMA as a problematic federal law at best. Significantly, there were two major issues: 1) how to deal with same-sex marriages that were lawful in the state in which they were performed, but were not recognized by another state which did not allow them and 2) how to reconcile the law of states that recognized same-sex marriage, with the denial of federal benefits under DOMA. Legally, it was a mess, and the SCOTUS justices finally had their chance to clean up with Obergefell.

What the justices used to make their decision: The 14thAmendment. The SCOTUS justices decided Obergefell under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868 as a response to the Civil War and was intended to limit the actions of all state and local officials. It is a broad amendment that has been applied to Brown v. Board of Education (regarding racial segregation in schools), Roe v. Wade (regarding abortion), and Bush v. Gore (deciding the 2000 presidential election).

The court’s full reasons for their majority decision: The four guiding principles. Justice Kennedy referenced four principles in reaching his conclusion which was joined by four other justices:

  • The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.
  • It supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals.
  • It safeguards children and families by providing stability, recognition, and predictability, as well as economic benefits.
  • Marriage is integral to our country’s social order.

The most beautiful part of the decision: The victor and the poet, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s reason for his majority decision in support of the plaintiffs. Justice Anthony Kennedy authored a 5-4 decision with such flare and compassion that it is not to be missed. After discussing the development of marriage as an institution, and the evolution of the rights of gays and lesbians, the opinion concluded that marriage is a fundamental right that applies with equal force to same-sex couples. The most romantic piece was easily:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.

Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

Be careful what you wish for: Divorce is now legal for all too. The right to marry in any state, have that marriage recognized in every state, and be afforded the same rights and benefits as all other married couples does reveal another side of the coin. If everyone can get married, everyone can also get divorced. Although the SCOTUS justices did not make a decision on how divorces will be handled across the country, it can be assumed they will proceed just like other divorces. Although divorce may not be the happy ever after many same-sex couples were seeking, it does grant them important protections that were formerly unavailable to them. Even in divorce, this is a victory for the civil rights of all LGBT couples.