Supreme Court Rules Gay Marriage is Constitutionally Protected
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UPDATED: Jun 29, 2015
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Last week, the Supreme Court resoundingly settled the gay marriage debate with a historic decision that protected the rights of LGBT couples to marry regardless of state opposition. The opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, will serve as a milestone in the fight for gay civil rights by providing a seemingly impenetrable legal protection for same-sex unions that will endure despite remaining political or social opposition.
Supreme Court Rejects Gay Marriage Bans
In Obergefell v Hodges the Court directly took on the question about whether or not gay marriage bans are constitutional. After avoiding the issue for years, the groundswell of gay marriage cases working their way through lower federal courts finally produced a split in opinion that the Supreme Court could not ignore – forcing the question about same-sex marriage to the Court’s docket. As the Justices pondered the future of gay marriages in the months following oral arguments, many legal experts predicted that Justice Kennedy, who has written every opinion that expands gay rights, would join with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan to support marriage equality. The only question in many minds was how the majority would elect to protect gay marriage, and what lasting effect would the opinion have on other arenas of gay civil rights.
As expected, Kennedy and the four liberal judges joined to form a 5 – 4 majority that found marriage to be a right that cannot be denied gay couples. Kennedy opened his eloquent opinion by arguing the Constitution protects the right of individuals to find their own identity in marriage, writing, “The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty. The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. No longer may this liberty be denied to them… [T]he State laws challenged by Petitioners in these cases are now held invalid to the extent they exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite sex couples.”
Supreme Court Provides Enduring Protection for Gay Marriage
Kennedy’s opening lines summarize the majority’s approach to protecting gay marriage by using two basic legal arguments: first, the Due Process Clause of the Constitution protects marriage as a fundamental right and second, the Equal Protection Clause prohibits exclusion of same-sex couples form enjoying the same fundamental right to marriage that opposite-sex couples enjoy. The combination of these two Constitutional clauses, which are the cornerstones of anti-discrimination jurisprudence, was used by the majority to narrowly tailor its opinion to gay marriage while still suggesting that LGBT individuals, whose condition is defined as “immutable” in the opinion, are owed the same rights as all Americans. Although the Court did not take the additional step of making sexual orientation a protected class – which would have offered Constitutional protections to the LGBT community that extend beyond marriage rights – the opinion closed the door on future debate over the constitutionality of same-sex unions.
The theme of the argument – that the Constitution protects the liberty to define your own sexual identity and receive the benefits of marriage accordingly – provides strong and lasting protections to same-sex couples. The combined use of Due Process and Equal Protection to make marriage a fundamental right that can be enjoyed by persons of all sexual orientation effectively protects gay marriage from any further social or political processes that are designed to deny same-sex unions. Justice Kennedy and the majority opinion explicitly provided Constitutional support for the institution of gay marriage, and it is inconceivable that any federal or state legislative act could institute a restriction on same-sex couples that is not unconstitutional. With a powerful and sweeping ruling, SCOTUS has closed the book on the gay marriage debate, providing equal liberty to LGBT couples seeking the benefits of marriage.
Any doubt of the strength and enduring impact of this ruling can be quelled by Kennedy’s final lines, “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. It is so ordered.”