June 26, 2015 marks a major milestone for civil rights in the United States, as the Supreme Court announces its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. By one vote, the court rules that same-sex marriage cannot be banned in the United States and that all same-sex marriages must be recognized nationwide, finally granting same-sex couples equal rights to heterosexual couples under the law.
In 1971, just two years after the Stonewall Riots that unofficially marked the beginning of the struggle for gay rights and marriage equality, the Minnesota Supreme Court had found same-sex marriage bans constitutional, a precedent which the Supreme Court had never challenged. As homosexuality gradually became more accepted in American culture, the conservative backlash was strong enough to force President Bill Clinton to sign the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), prohibiting the recognition of same-sex marriages at the federal level, into law in 1996.
Over the next decade, many states banned same-sex marriage, while Vermont instituted same-sex civil unions in 2000 and Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003. Gay marriage was the predominant “culture war” issue of George W. Bush‘s presidency, and even his successor Barack Obama, elected on a platform of liberal change in 2008, did not fully endorse same-sex marriage at the time of his election. Obama did state his opposition to DOMA and instructed his Justice Department to stop defending it in 2011. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled DOMA unconstitutional and declined to rule on a case regarding a California ban, effectively legalizing same-sex marriage there.
Obergefell originated with a gay couple, Jim Obergefell and John Arthur, who were married in Maryland, where same-sex marriage was legal, but whose marriage was not recognized by Ohio authorities. As often happens with Supreme Court cases, a number of similar cases in Ohio and elsewhere were consolidated into what became Obergefell v. Hodges. The Supreme Court heard arguments on April 28, 2015. On June 26, the court ruled 5-4 in favor of the plaintiffs, stating that both bans on same-sex marriages and bans on recognizing same-sex marriages were unconstitutional.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, ““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.” Chief Justice John Roberts and three Associate Justices—Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito—each wrote dissenting opinions. The ruling overturned the 13 statewide bans still in effect and effectively settled the issue at the federal level, although a few rogue counties ignored the ruling.
Explore the history of the LGBTQ movement in America here.