The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for states to prohibit same-sex marriage on Friday, marking a monumental victory in the decades-long struggle for gay rights.
In a 5-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy joined with the four liberal Justices—Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor—to find that the 14th Amendment, which guarantees “equal protection of the laws,” required states to give same-sex couples the same rights as straight couples.
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” the justices wrote. “[The petitioners] ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
The four conservative justices—Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas—dissented, writing four separate dissents.
It is an outcome that would have been unthinkable just 10 years ago, when only Massachusetts performed same-sex marriage. But today, when all but 13 states perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, the Court’s decision was widely expected.
While the Court’s decision applies nationwide, it may only take effect immediately in the four states covered in the case: Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Michigan. Officials in some counties in the other nine states that previously banned same-sex marriage—such as Austin, Tex.’s Travis County and Lincoln, Neb.’s Lancaster County—are granting marriage licenses this morning, while others are delaying.
LGBT Americans still face discrimination in employment and housing across most of the country, as well as higher rates of violence, mental illness, and suicide, and LGBT people of color are especially affected. The struggle for equality is far from over.
But nationwide same-sex marriage will make a real difference in the lives of thousands of gay couples and their families, who are now entitled to the same protections that heterosexual couples are. It’s also a symbolic victory, finally giving governmental recognition to what for many people is the most important relationship in their lives.
“Today we can say in no uncertain terms that we’ve made our union a little more perfect,” President Obama said in a televised statement from the Rose Garden, calling the court’s decision “justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”
The decision comes after 50 years of activism, from the Stonewall Riots in June 1969 to a political and legal campaign for marriage equality over the last decade. It is “another shining example of America living up to its ideals and another testament to the American idea that if we all do our part and do our work, we can make a more perfect union,” Evan Wolfson, the executive director of advocacy group Freedom to Marry, told Fusion.
Obergefell v. Hodges, the specific case in question, joins other cases like Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Loving v. Virginia in the pantheon of Supreme Court decisions that have pushed America toward a more just, equitable future.
It owes the most, perhaps, to Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 case which legalized interracial marriages. “Freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in that decision.
Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff who the case is named for, sued Ohio after his name was not included as the surviving spouse on the death certificate of his husband, John Arthur. His case was combined with three others for the Court’s decision.
The Court had been building up to this decision for several years, notably with the 2013 decision in United States v. Windsor that struck down a federal law prohibiting the recognition of same-sex marriages. That decision provided the momentum for a number of legal challenges to state bans, challenges affirmed by the Court’s decision today.
While the country is still divided over same-sex marriage, approval of gay unions and gay rights in general has risen dramatically, and progress is being made on other fronts, like the New Jersey decision yesterday to ban gay conversion therapy. The Court’s decision suggests it is likely to become less of a hot-button political issue, one less battle in the culture war between red and blue America. It also seems to be a Waterloo for the myriad conservative Christian groups who have fought same-sex marriage for years.
“Certainly a new chapter will begin, but the ongoing national discussion about marriage will continue,” Jim Campbell, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the anti-gay marriage groups who filed an amicus brief in the case, told Fusion. “For us, the issue is far broader than just this question of same-sex marriage… it’s about encouraging marital relations that remain committed, about incentivizing marriage more.”
Campbell said conservative groups currently focused on gay marriage might now look at new policies like reforming divorce laws to encourage married couples to stay together.
Despite the whirlwind increase in states allowing same-sex marriage over the last few years, this was not a legal struggle that took place quickly. In fact, the first same-sex marriage case before the Court was in 1972, in Baker v. Nelson, in which the justices dismissed the case of a Minnesota gay couple who had asked for marriage rights.
“The outcome was never in doubt because the conclusion was intuitively obvious to a first-year law student,” Jack Baker, the plaintiff in that case, told the Associated Press in 2013.
Ironically, one of the federal appeals courts that heard Obergefell’s case used Baker v. Nelson as a precedent for leaving the decision to the states. But other appeals courts objected to that logic, leading the Supreme Court to hear the case—and to today’s historic ruling.
“Now we have to keep going, we need to harness the power of the marriage win and the marriage conversation to the other work that remains,” Wolfson said.