Two years ago today, much of the nation waited breathlessly for a landmark Supreme Court decision. One way or another, a verdict would be given about a long, emotional struggle to have same-sex marriages legally recognized across the nation.
The day of the decision happened on the second anniversary that the Supreme Court struck down a major section of the Defense of Marriage Act. That decision enabled federal recognition of same-sex marriages. That day was also the twelfth anniversary of the ruling that struck down the validity of the last few sodomy laws in the US.
There had been numerous challenges to various state laws that banned same-sex legal unions. The laws had been challenged in various state and federal courts, with mixed results. In late 2014, after a long series of appeals court rulings that state level same-sex marriage bans were unconstitutional, the Sixth Circuit Court ruled that bans were constitutional. It was this split in court opinions that fostered the climate for Supreme Court review. The case that eventually led to that review was just developing.
The case centered around James Obergefell and John Arthur, both of Ohio. Arthur was terminally ill with ALS and the couple wanted to get married, but Ohio did not recognize same-sex marriages. The two flew to Maryland where they were legally married at Baltimore Airport in 2013. Arthur’s death was anticipated so the couple filed a lawsuit that challenged Ohio’s non-recognition of same-sex marriage on death certificates. Sadly, Arthur died several months after the suit’s litigation started.
Throughout the state’s history, Ohio law recognized marriages that were solemnized outside of the state of Ohio. Furthermore, certain marriages between cousins and older minors solomnized in other jurisdictions were valid in Ohio even though they could not be legally performed in Ohio. The plaintiffs understood that Ohio officials would refuse to recognize that Arthur was married at the time of death and that Obergefell was his spouse.
On July 19, 2013, the case was filed in US District Court for Southern Ohio. Three days later, Judge Timothy Black granted a temporary restraining order requiring Ohio to recognize the marriage on Arthur’s death certificate. In September an amended complaint added two additional plaintiffs, David Michener and Robert Grunn. Judge Black ruled on December 23rd that Ohio’s refusal to recognize same-sex unions performed in other states was in violation of due process and equal rights of the marriage partners.
The State of Ohio appealed the decision. On November 6, 2014 the Court of Appeals reversed the decision. On November 14th, Obergefell filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari with the US Supreme Court. The following January the Supreme Court granted certiorari and agreed to hear the case.
The Court consolidated the case with other Sixth Circuit cases challenging same-sex marriage restrictions. The Court ordered each party brief one of two issues pertinent to their cases:
A. Whether the 14th Amendment requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex.
B. Whether the 14th Amendment requires a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out of state.
The plaintiffs argued that the case addressed question B. The plaintiffs’ merit brief was filed on February 27, 2015. The respondents’ briefs were filed March 27th. The Reply brief was filed April 17th. The case was then heard on April 28th.
The decision was issued on the second to the last decision day of the Court’s term. At 10:00 am on June 26, 2015 The Justices ruled that the 14th Amendment requires all states to license marriages between same-sex couples. Furthermore, all marriages that have been lawfully performed out of state must be legally recognized.
Part of the Court’s majority opinion stated: “…this Court’s cases and the Nation’s traditions make clear that marriage is a keystone of the Nation’s social order. See Maynard v. Hill, 125 U. S. 190, 211. 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….”
With the legal validity of marriage equality came the advent of the continuing struggle to obtain its social acceptance.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “It’s a facet of the gay rights movement that people don’t think about enough. Why suddenly marriage equality? Because it wasn’t until 1981 that the Court struck down Louisiana’s ‘head and master rule,’ that the husband was head and master of the house.”