Today, the Court came out on a special day to give a historic opinion on same-sex marriage. Normally, the Court only gives opinions on Monday and Thursday at the end of the Supreme Court session. The Court acted different today due to the momentous nature of this opinion. The Supreme Court said today that all states throughout the country must issue a license to marry to same-sex couples and all states must recognize valid marriage licenses for same-sex couples issued by other states. This decision is a full and final validation of the right of homosexual couples to marry throughout the United States.
The decision in Obergefell v. Hodges stated that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees marriage rights for same-sex couples through two different legal theories. First, the Court said that since marriage is a fundamental liberty that must be extended to “certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs.” In other words, the Court could no longer see a reason to deny a gay person the right to marry the person s/he loved.
In addition, the Court found that banning same-sex marriage is a violation of 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause. The Court said that to continue to deny marriage to same-sex couples while allowing it for opposite-sex couples only “serves to disrespect and subordinate [homosexuals].” By saying that same-sex marriage is covered under the Equal Protection Clause the Court has said that homosexuals are a protected class and they ensured that encroachment on their right to marry will get the strictest scrutiny.
The Court’s decision today represents a dramatic shift in the Court’s attitude towards homosexuality. This shift is as dramatic as the shift in public opinion over the same period. In 1986, while the country was still in the midst of calling AIDS the “gay plague” and President Reagan would not even speak about the disease, the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick. In Bowers, the Supreme Court ruled that laws against sodomy were still constitutional.
Nearly 20 years later, the Supreme Court had an opportunity to review its decision in Bowers in Lawrence v. TXs in 2003. A lot of time had passed since Bowers and the country was changing in the way we saw homosexuals. There were prominent gay characters on television in the show Will & Grace and Ellen along with more and more open discussion about what it meant to be homosexual. The Court reflected this change when it ruled that laws against sodomy were as unconstitutional as laws against condoms. The Court said once for all that government has no place in the bedroom.
The Court continued to evolve towards justice on this issue as we have seen in the past three years. In 2013, two major marriage opinions came from the Supreme Court with Perry v. Hollingsworth and Windsor v. United States. In Perry, the Court determined for a variety of reasons that an initiative in California banning same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution. This decision was further bolstered by Windsor where the Court found that the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act violated the constitution when it prevented same-sex marriages from being recognized in states other than ones that issued the marriage license.
Those two cases prefaced the dramatic opinion that came out today. Our society will look back at today as historic as some of the other major Court Opinions in the area of civil rights, such as Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia and Roe v. Wade. The Court has joined, society at the place where differences in sexual identity are up to the individual and not the state.