After years of debate, litigation and state ballot measures, equal justice for same-sex couples has at last prevailed with Friday’s historic U.S. Supreme Court decision that they can marry in all 50 states.
It’s past time. For too long, many gay and lesbian couples have been denied this fundamental right. Although they could already marry in 37 states, including Minnesota plus the District of Columbia, same-sex couples had not yet won that right in 13 states. The court’s 5-4 ruling essentially directs the remaining 13 to provide marriage licenses for same-sex unions and recognize marriages from other states.
Justices issued the decision in the case of main plaintiff James Obergefell of Ohio, where gay marriage has been banned. In July 2013, he married John Arthur James in Maryland because of the Ohio ban. Later that year, James died and Ohio refused to recognize Obergefell as the surviving spouse on the death certificate. He went to court, arguing that banning same-sex marriage and failing to recognize a legal marriage violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment. Conflicting decisions in lower courts ultimately sent the case to the Supreme Court.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, just as he did in the court’s three previous gay rights cases dating back to 1996. Friday’s ruling came on the anniversary of two of those earlier decisions.
Kennedy eloquently refuted one of the key arguments of gay- marriage opponents — that marriage should be reserved for one man and one woman who can have children. He noted that many same-sex couples provide “loving and nurturing homes’’ to their kids and that excluding them from marriage harms those children.
“Without the recognition, stability and predictability marriage offers, their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser. They also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life. The marriage laws at issue here thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples.’’
Unfortunately, Friday’s ruling will not magically create universal acceptance for same-sex couples or acceptance of their right to marry. The debate will continue to play out in the Republican presidential primary and no doubt still be an issue in the 2016 elections. For a host of reasons — including deeply held religious beliefs — millions of Americans are not yet ready to accept anything but a traditional definition of marriage.
Short of acceptance, we can hope and ask for tolerance. We can encourage all Americans to realize that in pursuing the right to marry, their gay sons and daughters and co-workers and neighbors were simply hoping for respect. As Kennedy wrote: “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.”