Supreme Court declares 5-4 that same-sex marriage is constitutional right

A gay men's chorus sings in front of the Supreme Court building on Friday after the same-sex ruling was handed down. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
A gay men's chorus sings in front of the Supreme Court building on Friday after the same-sex ruling was handed down. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published June 27, 2015

WASHINGTON — Same-sex marriage is a constitutional right anywhere in the United States, the Supreme Court ruled Friday, a historic moment for the gay rights movement that reflects a dramatic shift in public opinion.

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family," Justice Anthony Kennedy said, reading from the majority opinion, while some in the audience fought tears.

The 5-4 decision, after decades of legal and political battles across the country, ends prohibitions in more than a dozen states, and jubilant gay and lesbian couples went to local offices Friday for marriage licenses.

Florida's ban, approved by referendum in 2008, was invalidated earlier this year by a federal court decision, becoming the latest in a series of developments that left more than 70 percent of Americans living in places where gay marriage is legal.

"It's my hope that the term 'gay marriage' will soon be a thing of the past, that from this day forward, it will simply be 'marriage,' " said Jim Obergefell, an Ohio man at the heart of Obergefell vs. Hodges, the case the justices ruled on. He stood on the steps of the high court, where people hugged and a gay chorus group sang the Star-Spangled Banner.

Moments later Obergefell received a congratulatory phone call from President Barack Obama, who opposed gay marriage in 2008 but supported it in 2012. "This ruling is a victory for America," Obama said later in a speech from the Rose Garden.

"This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts: When all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free," he said.

The majority was made up of Kennedy and liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Kennedy, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, again provided the crucial vote in a gay rights case.

Two years ago, the same coalition struck down a federal law denying benefits to same-sex couples but stopped short of saying same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.

The ruling announced by the court on Friday dealt with bans in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan. The majority said that under the due process and equal protection rights of the 14th Amendment "couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty."

"As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death," Kennedy wrote. "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."

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The court's more conservative justices — Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — formed the dissenting views.

"This court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us," Roberts wrote. He read a summary from the bench, the first time he has done so in nearly 10 years as chief justice.

"Many people will rejoice at this decision, and I begrudge none their celebration," Roberts wrote. "But for those who believe in a government of laws, not of men, the majority's approach is deeply disheartening."

"Today, five lawyers have ordered every state to change their definition of marriage," Roberts said. "Just who do we think we are?"

Wrote Alito: "This understanding of marriage, which focuses almost entirely on the happiness of persons who choose to marry, is shared by many people today, but it is not the traditional one. For millennia, marriage was inextricably linked to the one thing that only an opposite-sex couple can do: procreate."

The states that had still banned same-sex marriage and were most directly affected by Friday's ruling are: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, most of Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas.

Some began issuing marriage licenses on Friday.

The decision came amid a rapid shift in public opinion about gay marriage. In 2009, 37 percent of Americans supported the right; in May 2015, it was at 57 percent, according to Pew Research Center. Among young people, support is at 73 percent.

Critics were notably muted in their reaction Friday, but accused the court of stepping on the rights of states to decide the issue or made religious arguments.

"Today's Supreme Court decision strikes at the heart of our nation just as Roe v. Wade did decades ago," said Judie Brown, president of the Catholic anti-abortion group American Life League. "A nation that has lost its values has lost its soul."

The decision was the second ruling in as many days to carry implications for the 2016 presidential election. As with Thursday's decision protecting subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, Republicans criticized the court. But they were largely careful in their remarks.

"Guided by my faith, I believe in traditional marriage," said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "I believe the Supreme Court should have allowed the states to make this decision. I also believe that we should love our neighbor and respect others, including those making lifetime commitments. In a country as diverse as ours, good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side."

Sen. Marco Rubio, another presidential hopeful from Florida, largely echoed that sentiment. And both oppose a constitutional amendment allowing states to define marriage, an idea floated by rival Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

There are an estimated 390,000 married same-sex couples in the United States, according to UCLA's Williams Institute, which tracks the demographics of gay and lesbian Americans. Another 70,000 couples living in states that do not currently permit them to wed would get married in the next three years, the institute says.

Roughly 1 million same-sex couples, married and unmarried, live together in the United States, the institute says.

Friday's ruling capped a profound week in the country, where earlier the Confederate flag began to fall in a number of states after the massacre of black worshipers at a church in South Carolina.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report. Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports