WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Friday that it is legal for all Americans, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, to marry the people they love.
The decision is a historic victory for gay rights activists who have fought for years in the lower courts. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia already recognize marriage equality. The remaining 13 states ban these unions, even as public support has reached record levels nationwide.
The justices found that, under the 14th Amendment, states must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and recognize same-sex unions that have been legally performed in other states. Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the majority opinion and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. In a rare move, the four dissenting justices each wrote an opinion.
The lead plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges is Ohio resident Jim Obergefell, who wanted to be listed as the surviving spouse on his husband's death certificate. In 2013, Obergefell married his partner of two decades, John Arthur, who suffered from ALS. Arthur passed away in October of that year, three months after the couple filed their lawsuit.
Obergefell was joined by several dozen other gay plaintiffs from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee who were fighting to be able to marry and to have their marriage recognized in every state in the country.
In the majority opinion, the justices outlined several reasons same-sex marriage should be allowed. They wrote that the right to marriage is an inherent aspect of individual autonomy, since "decisions about marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make." They also said gay Americans have a right to "intimate association" beyond merely freedom from laws that ban homosexuality.
Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy. These five justices were in the majority in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. (Photos: Getty)
Extending the right to marry protects families and "without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser," the justices wrote.
The majority concluded that the right for same-sex couples to marry is protected under the 14th Amendment, citing the clauses that guarantee equal protection and due process.
In his dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, argued that same-sex marriage is not endorsed by the Constitution. "Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits," they wrote. "But do not celebrate the Constitution."
Scalia, in his own scathing dissent, complained that the majority opinion lacked "even a thin veneer of law." He quipped, "Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie."
The country's views of same-sex marriage have transformed since 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to allow gay couples to wed. In 2013, the Supreme Court began chipping away at the country's legacy of discrimination against same-sex couples when it struck down part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented same-sex couples whose marriages were recognized by their home state from receiving the hundreds of benefits available to other married couples under federal law.
In its opinion, the majority recognized the profound cultural shifts in marriage views, citing both the Chinese educator Confucius and the Roman philosopher Cicero. The justices noted how marriage has been transformed from a union arranged by a couple's parents for financial reasons to a voluntary contract, and from a male-dominated relationship to an agreement where women have "equal dignity." These changes, the majority wrote, have strengthened the institution of marriage.
"Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations," the majority wrote.
President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to support marriage equality when he came out in favor of it in 2012, the same year that the Democratic Party made it part of its platform for the first time. On Friday, Obama called the ruling "a victory for America."
The Republican Party and its slate of 2016 presidential aspirants, however, remain opposed to same-sex marriage. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) support a constitutional amendment protecting states that want to ban marriage equality.
Some conservatives have advocated for a civil disobedience effort against a Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage. However, officials in red states told The Huffington Post recently that they are prepared to implement the decision, going so far as to ready gender-neutral marriage licenses and set later office hours. Gerard Rickhoff, who oversees marriage licenses in Bexar County, Texas, said that if same-sex couples are discriminated against elsewhere in the state, "Just get in your car and come on down the highway. You'll be embraced here."
As the majority wrote in its opinion, the petitioners' "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."
Read the court's opinion here: