The Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 that state bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.
Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion of the Court.
The Court found that marriage is first and foremost a fundamental individual liberty protected by the 14th Amendment, that that right extends to same-sex couples, and that bans on marriage between couples of the same-sex violate the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection before the law.
Ten years ago, the House of Representatives overwhelming passed a bill to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage; two-thirds of the country was against allowing gays to marriage; and “liberals” like Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were vocally opposing it, too.
In the last decade, there’s been a sea change in public opinion on the freedom to marry: two-thirds of the country now supports equal marriage and half of the states already allowed same-sex marriage.
Now there’s even talk of getting the state out of licensing marriage entirely.
The decision is excerpted below, covering questions about fundamental rights, equal protection and due process, democracy, religious freedom, the evolving nature of marriage, the idea that gay marriage harms the institution, and finally skip to the last section for Kennedy's moving conclusion.
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Why the Constitution protects the fundamental right of marriage for both same- and opposite-sex couples (from the syllabus):
Four principles and traditions demonstrate that the reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply with equal force to same-sex couples.
The first premise of this Court’s relevant precedents is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.
This abiding connection between marriage and liberty is why Loving invalidated interracial marriage bans under the Due Process Clause. Decisions about marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.
A second principle in this Court’s jurisprudence is that the right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals.
The intimate association protected by this right was central to Griswold v. Connecticut, which held the Constitution protects the right of married couples to use contraception and was acknowledged in Turner.
Same-sex couples have the same right as opposite-sex couples to enjoy intimate association, a right extending beyond mere freedom from laws making same-sex intimacy a criminal offense. See Lawrence.
A third basis for protecting the right to marry is that it safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education.
Without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser. They also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated to a more difficult and uncertain family life. The marriage laws at issue thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples. This does not mean that the right to marry is less meaningful for those who do not or cannot have children.
Precedent protects the right of a married couple not to procreate, so the right to marry cannot be conditioned on the capacity or commitment to procreate.
Finally, this Court’s cases and the Nation’s traditions make clear that marriage is a keystone of the Nation’s social order.
States have contributed to the fundamental character of marriage by placing it at the center of many facets of the legal and social order. There is no difference between same- and opposite-sex couples with respect to this principle, yet same-sex couples are denied the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage and are consigned to an instability many opposite-sex couples would find intolerable.
It is demeaning to lock same-sex couples out of a central institution of the Nation’s society, for they too may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage. The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest
On Equal Protection and Due Process:
The right of same-sex couples to marry that is part of the liberty promised by the Fourteenth Amendment is derived, too, from that Amendment’s guarantee of the equal protection of the laws.
The Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause are connected in a profound way, though they set forth independent principles. Rights implicit in liberty and rights secured by equal protection may rest on different precepts and are not always coextensive, yet in some instances each may be instructive as to the meaning and reach of the other. …
The Court’s cases touching upon the right to marry reflect this dynamic. In Loving the Court invalidated a prohibition on interracial marriage under both the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause.
The Court first declared the prohibition invalid because of its unequal treatment of interracial couples. It stated: “There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.”
With this link to equal protection the Court proceeded to hold the prohibition offended central precepts of liberty: “To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.”
On the evolution of liberty and equality in the institution of marriage:
Each concept — liberty and equal protection — leads to a stronger understanding of the other. Indeed, in interpreting the Equal Protection Clause, the Court has recognized that new insights and societal understandings can reveal unjustified inequality within our most fundamental institutions that once passed unnoticed and unchallenged.
To take but one period, this occurred with respect to marriage in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Notwithstanding the gradual erosion of the doctrine of coverture, invidious sex-based classifications in marriage remained common through the mid-20th century. These classifications denied the equal dignity of men and women.
One State’s law, for example, provided in 1971 that “the husband is the head of the family and the wife is subject to him; her legal civil existence is merged in the husband, except so far as the law recognizes her separately, either for her own protection, or for her benefit.”
Responding to a new awareness, the Court invoked equal protection principles to invalidate laws imposing sex-based inequality on marriage. Like Loving and Zablocki, these precedents show the Equal Protection Clause can help to identify and correct inequalities in the institution of marriage, vindicating precepts of liberty and equality under the Constitution.
On the “democracy” question:
There may be an initial inclination in these cases to proceed with caution — to await further legislation, litigation, and debate. The respondents warn there has been insufficient democratic discourse before deciding an issue so basic as the definition of marriage. …
Of course, the Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, so long as that process does not abridge fundamental rights. … But as Schuette also said, “[t]he freedom secured by the Constitution consists, in one of its essential dimensions, of the right of the individual not to be injured by the unlawful exercise of governmental power.”
Thus, when the rights of persons are violated, “the Constitution requires redress by the courts,” notwithstanding the more general value of democratic decisionmaking. This holds true even when protecting individual rights affects issues of the utmost importance and sensitivity.
The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right. The Nation’s courts are open to injured individuals who come to them to vindicate their own direct, personal stake in our basic charter.
An individual can invoke a right to constitutional protection when he or she is harmed, even if the broader public disagrees and even if the legislature refuses to act.
The idea of the Constitution “was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.” This is why “fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”
On the idea that same-sex marriages will harm the institution:
The respondents also argue allowing same-sex couples to wed will harm marriage as an institution by leading to fewer opposite-sex marriages. This may occur, the respondents contend, because licensing same-sex marriage severs the connection between natural procreation and marriage.
That argument, however, rests on a counterintuitive view of opposite-sex couple’s decisionmaking processes regarding marriage and parenthood. Decisions about whether to marry and raise children are based on many personal, romantic, and practical considerations; and it is unrealistic to conclude that an opposite-sex couple would choose not to marry simply because same-sex couples may do so.
The respondents have not shown a foundation for the conclusion that allowing same-sex marriage will cause the harmful outcomes they describe. Indeed, with respect to this asserted basis for excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry, it is appropriate to observe these cases involve only the rights of two consenting adults whose marriages would pose no risk of harm to themselves or third parties.
On the question of religious freedom:
Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.
But when that sincere, personal opposition becomes enacted law and public policy, the necessary consequence is to put the imprimatur of the State itself on an exclusion that soon demeans or stigmatizes those whose own liberty is then denied.
Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right. …
Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.
The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. ...
In turn, those who believe allowing samesex marriage is proper or indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate.
The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.
In the final analysis:
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.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered.
Update: Ilya Somin thinks that Kennedy's opinion is dubious and poorly reasoned, but it might not matter. David Bernstein thinks that the majority is wrong, and it really could matter a whole lot. Bernstein finds Roberts's dissent to be dangerously wrong, too. Timothy Sandefur thinks the majority opinion was terribly reasoned, and the Scalia's dissent is even worse.