Look around, Americans. Your nation just became bigger and better.
In a giant stride forward for civil rights, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday that gay men and lesbian women are equal under the Constitution and entitled to marriage and all of its benefits.
What a day.
Because of the historic Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, decided by a 5-4 vote, same-sex couples who have been together for years can seal their love through marriage if they choose. No longer will the right to a complete union depend on a state’s boundaries. Same-sex marriage is the law of the land.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had the privilege of delivering the majority opinion, eloquently summarized the essence of the case:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. 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.”
Friday’s decision marked the end of a remarkable legal and societal journey that surprised people on all sides with its swiftness.
It began with a 2003 court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. In the backlash that followed, many states, including Missouri and Kansas, adopted laws and constitutional amendments forbidding same-sex marriages or recognition of them.
But the nation was changing. Couples of the same sex were living together openly, attending churches and joining school parent-teacher organizations. To oppose same-sex marriage, Americans learned, was to deny a fundamental right to their neighbors.
More court rulings legalized same-sex marriage in states such as Iowa. Some legislatures passed laws making marriage legal in their states.
Exactly two years ago, ruling in the United States v. Windsor case, the Supreme Court held that the federal government’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. But lower courts have issued mixed opinions on whether states must grant equal rights under marriage laws. Friday’s opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges answers that question.
Yes, they must. No state can refuse a same-sex couple the right to marry, nor can a state refuse to recognize marriages performed in other states.
Kennedy’s opinion will become required reading for students of history, American culture and civil rights.
It is respectful toward opponents of same-sex marriage, acknowledging that, “To them, it would demean a timeless institution if the concept and lawful status of marriage were extended to two persons of the same sex. Marriage, in their view, is by its nature a gender-differentiated union of man and woman. This view long has been held — and continues to be held — in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world.”
But, Kennedy noted, “The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution — even as confined to opposite-sex relations — has evolved over time.”
Marriage once was viewed as an arrangement to be made by a couple’s parents, he observed. Over time it evolved to a voluntary contract between a man and a woman. Further evolution saw women gain legal, political and property rights apart from their husbands.
The intent of same-sex couples is not to demean the “revered idea and reality of marriage,” Kennedy wrote. “Far from seeking to devalue marriage, the petitioners seek it for themselves because of their respect — and need — for its privileges and responsibilities.”
Friday’s ruling won’t mean an immediate nationwide rush to the altar. It technically extends only to four states where the cases that the court considered originated — Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan. Further court action will likely be required to strike down bans in Missouri, Kansas and elsewhere.
But there will be no turning back. As of today, it is the constitutional right of all Americans to marry the person they love, regardless of gender.
Remember the names of these five justices: Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan. They have placed America on the right side of history.