On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry. This was a close decision, 5-4, with the minority vehemently (at times, colorfully) dissenting. While most people have an opinion about the decision, they don’t really know how we got here, in the legal sense.
Here is a little primer on this monumental decision.
Cases that go to the Supreme Court are meant to resolve legal disputes that will have an effect on everyone in the country, so oftentimes the actual plaintiffs are overlooked while we only focus on the issues. Here, there were three sets of plaintiffs.
James Obergefell, from Ohio where same-sex marriage was illegal, fell in love with John Arthur over two decades ago. In 2011, Arthur was diagnosed with ALS. Two years ago, the two decided to marry. They flew to Maryland, where gay marriage is legal, and married inside the medical transport plane on the tarmac in Baltimore because it was too difficult for Arthur to move. Three months later, Arthur passed away. Ohio law prohibited Obergefell to be listed as Arthur’s surviving spouse on the death certificate.
April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, from Michigan, adopted three children, two of whom had significant special needs. Michigan only allowed opposite-sex married couples or single individuals to adopt, so a child can only have one woman as a legal guardian. If an emergency came up, schools and hospitals could have treated these kids as if they only had one parent, and if that one parent were to pass away, the other one may not have had parental rights.
Army Reserve Sergeant First Class Ijpe DeKoe and his partner Thomas Kostura, from Tennessee, decided to marry in New York before DeKoe was deployed to Afghanistan for one year. DeKoe came back from deployment and settled down in Tennessee, where his marriage is not recognized.
The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects “fundamental” liberties. This protection extends to “certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices defining personal identity and beliefs.”
The court ruled that the right to marry is a fundamental one, protected by the Constitution, based on these four tenets:
The right to personal choice in marriage is inherent in the concept of personal autonomy. Decisions about marriage are among the most intimate ones that people can make, regardless of sexual orientation. Who we decide to marry inherently defines who we are.
Marriage is the ultimate union between two individuals. Marriage allows couples to define themselves by their commitment to each other.
Marriage protects children and families. Our society values the nuclear family. The court rationalized that children of same-sex couples would suffer the stigma of knowing that their family was somehow lesser if their parents were deprived the right to marry. The court was careful to note that procreation is not a condition of marriage for opposite-sex couples, so it shouldn’t be one for same-sex couples.
Marriage is inextricably connected to social order. Marriage is not just symbolic. States have connected marriage to a host of government benefits. Married couples enjoy rights that non-married couples do not – a lot of rights. It is demeaning to bar same-sex couples from accessing these benefits.
The Court ruled that because marriage is a fundamental right, the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between a same-sex couple performed out-of-State.
There are four separate dissenting written opinions, all with different objections to the majority decision, but all with one particular objection permeating throughout – the legalization of same-sex marriage is a decision that should be left for the legislature, by vote, not one made by 9 unelected judges who are basically just super lawyers. The dissenters argue that the issue of same-sex marriage is being spiritedly debated throughout the country, and that the Court has robbed the people of their right to rule themselves.
The majority responds with the following: “While the Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, individuals who are harmed need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right.” In other words, if a fundamental right is being infringed upon, the Supreme Court may step in.
Regardless of what side you take in the debate, it is undeniable that the United States has made history with this decision. You do not need to be a lawyer to read and understand the decision, and I strongly recommend that you read it – perhaps a nice beach read this summer.