In June of 2015, 13 states in the United States had still not legalized same-sex marriage. Four of those states were Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
In 1992, a man by the name of Jim Obergefell met James Arthur. The two were partners for over 20 years when Arthur was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. In 2013, the two men decided to get married, but since Ohio did not recognize same-sex marriage, they had to travel by medical plane to Maryland. Three months later, Arthur succumbed to his illness and Obergefell filed an injunction so that he could appear as the spouse on his husband’s death certificate in a state where their marriage was not recognized. Although a federal judge ruled in Obergefell’s favor, the state of Ohio appealed this decision and won, so Obergefell and his attorney appealed to the Supreme Court.
Because his case had the lower case number, Obergefell was made the name plaintiff of four cases that were joined when they appeared before the Supreme Court. The respondent in the Obergefell case was Richard Hodges, the Director of the Ohio State Department of Health. In total, the four consolidated cases represented 14 same-sex couples and two men whose same-sex partners were deceased. In each of the cases, the District Court found in favor of the plaintiffs, but the Sixth Circuit consolidated those cases and then found in favor of the respondents, or the state governments in question.
In each of the cases, the petitioners argued that the respondents were violating their 14th Amendment rights by not acknowledging their marriages that were legal in other states. The Court agreed to hear the case limited to two questions: whether the 14th Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between same-sex couples and whether the 14th Amendment requires a State to recognize a same-sex marriage licensed and performed in a state which does grant that right.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the 14th Amendment requires that states license marriage for same-sex couples as well as recognize licenses for same-sex marriages that are issued out of state. With this decision, the Court reversed the ruling of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. In the majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy, the Court rejected the argument that the petitioners were attempting to devalue the institution of marriage, but argued instead that they were trying to access its benefits. The majority also wrote that just as society’s understanding of marriage has evolved over time, the definition must evolve again to acknowledge this newly understood freedom.
Kennedy also wrote for the Court that the Due Process Clause protected certain individual rights, especially those relating to personal dignity such as marriage. Kennedy cited the history of the Supreme Court deciding to uphold the right to marry as fundamental, and he pointed to cases such as Loving v. State of Virginia (1967), which struck down state laws that prohibited interracial marriage.
The Court determined that the right to marry is fundamental on four grounds, the first being that marriage is fundamental to individual autonomy. Kennedy also wrote that same-sex couples have the same right to the union and intimacy of marriage as opposite-sex couples. In addition, the Court determined that marriage is an institution central to the protection of the family and children. Permitting same-sex couples to marry removes some of the stigma and material costs suffered by children of unmarried parents. Finally, the Court decided that marriage is central to societal structure in the United States, and that same-sex couples must be allowed to access the benefits of the institution.
Four of the justices dissented in this case, most of whom argued that in legalizing same-sex marriage, the Court was going beyond its Constitutional duties and acting as a legislative body. Chief Justice Roberts also disputed the idea that the definition of marriage should be allowed to change to include same-sex couples because the “core” definition of marriage between a man and a woman had never shifted. Justice Scalia wrote that the majority was claiming to be a legislative power and threatening American democracy. Thomas argued that liberty in the Constitution meant freedom from government action, not entitlement to benefits like marriage. Lastly, Justice Alito agreed that defining marriage should be left to the states and further argued that there are reasonable secular grounds for restricting marriage from same-sex couples because they cannot procreate.
On June 26, 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized in all 50-states and the territories of the United States. Between the time of the Court’s decision and 2018, 293,000 same-sex couples had married, more than doubling the number of such partnerships in the United States. Legally, those couples became eligible for state and federal benefits tied to marriage that previously had only been open to opposite sex-couples, including but not limited to the right to be listed on a birth certificate and the right to adopt. Across most of the United States, the decision was greeted positively. However, in some states and counties, since the ruling, same-sex couples have still faced challenges in obtaining a marriage license and continue to be treated in a discriminatory manner by some business owners.
In 2017, citing the decision on Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court ruled that Arkansas had violated the 14th Amendment rights of Leigh and Jana Jacobs, and Terrah and Marisa Pavan when it did not allow the names of both mothers to appear on their children’s birth certificates. In the case, Pavan v. Smith, the Court ruled that Arkansas discriminated against same-sex couples because it denied them a right available to opposite-sex couples.