Same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry nationwide, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a historic ruling that caps the biggest civil rights transformation in a half-century.
Voting 5-4, the justices said states lack any legitimate reason to deprive gay couples of the freedom to marry. Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court’s four Democratic appointees in the majority, bringing gay weddings to the last 14 states where they were still banned.
“The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person,” Kennedy wrote. “Couples of the same sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.”
The ruling is a legal landmark, on par with the 1967 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed interracial couples the freedom to wed. It punctuates a period of sweeping change in the rights of gays, coming only 11 years after Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriages.
The decision is likely to meet resistance in parts of the country and spark new legal fights. North Carolina has a new law that lets court officials refuse to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies. Pike County, Alabama, currently isn’t issuing marriage licenses to anyone.
In other parts of the country, same-sex marriage started almost immediately after the high court ruled. Travis County, Texas, began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples at 10:30 a.m. local time. County judges in Ohio, North Dakota, Nebraska, Michigan, Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky had either begun issuing licenses or stood ready to do so this morning, according to local news reports.
Same-sex couples in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama were told they will have to wait.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented, with each writing a separate opinion. Roberts read a summary of his dissent from the bench for the first time in his 10 years on the court.
Roberts wrote that the gay couples “make strong arguments rooted in social policy and consideration of fairness.” But, he said, “under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be.”
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Kennedy’s opinion without adding any separate comments.
The decision comes at a time of record support among Americans for same-sex weddings. A Gallup poll conducted in May showed 60 percent favoring legalized same-sex marriage and 37 percent opposed.
‘Dignity of Marriage’
“This ruling will strengthen all of our communities by offering to all loving same-sex couples the dignity of marriage across this great land,” President Barack Obama said in a statement at the White House.
Immediately after the ruling, Obama placed a call to Jim Obergefell, the Ohio man whose name will forever be attached to the ruling. Obergefell became the lead plaintiff after seeking to have his name on the death certificate of his partner of two decades, John Arthur. Obergefell and Arthur married on an airport tarmac in Maryland in 2013 just months before Arthur’s death.
“Your leadership on this issue, you know, has changed the country,” Obama told Obergefell, who was in the courtroom for Friday’s announcement.
A party-like atmosphere developed outside the court in the hours after the ruling. Gay-marriage supporters cheered, sang songs and took pictures of themselves at the site of history.
“This means finally equality for not only the entire gay community but for myself as well,” said Dan Fitzgerald, a 19-year-old gay man from Washington and student at American University.
Hundreds of companies -- including Amazon.com Inc., Google Inc. and Walt Disney Co. -- pressed the court to legalize gay marriage nationwide. They said it would help them attract able workers and simplify their employee-benefit packages throughout the nation.
The ruling “will help families across the country, make it easier for businesses to hire and keep talented people, and promote both economic growth and individual freedom,” Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said in a statement on its website.
The Supreme Court case involved 31 people from Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky. A federal appeals court had ruled against gay weddings, saying changes to marriage laws should come through the political process, not the courtroom.
Kennedy rejected that reasoning, saying the democratic process must give way to the Constitution.
“The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right,” he wrote. “The nation’s courts are open to injured individuals who come to them to vindicate their own direct, personal stake in our basic charter.”
Kennedy said same-sex marriage bans violated two guarantees protected by the Constitution’s 14th Amendment: the fundamental right to marry and the right to equal protection.
Gay couples “ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” Kennedy wrote. “The Constitution grants them that right.”
His 28-page opinion said marriage was an institution that had “evolved over time.”
“Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process,” he wrote.
Kennedy said people with religious objections “may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.”
The ruling doesn’t resolve all legal questions about gay rights. Civil-rights advocates are still trying to win anti-discrimination protections, both at the federal level and in the dozens of states where people can be fired or denied housing because of sexual orientation.
The people seeking marriage rights included Michigan residents April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, nurses who have adopted four children, two of them with special needs. Obergefell was the lead plaintiff in the Ohio case.
The high court ruling means that “our love is equal,” Obergefell said outside the court building. “The four words etched onto the front of the Supreme Court, ‘Equal Justice Under Law,’ apply to us too.”
Roberts said supporters of gay marriage should “celebrate” the ruling and the “opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner.”
“But do not celebrate the Constitution,” he wrote. “It had nothing to do with it.”
Scalia and Thomas joined Roberts’s opinion and also wrote separately. Scalia called the ruling a “threat to American democracy.”
“Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court,” Scalia wrote.
Alito said the ruling “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” He faulted the majority for equating gay-marriage bans to the laws that once barred interracial marriages.
Almost 400,000 same-sex couples have already married in places where it is legal, and an estimated 70,000 more now will wed in the new states, according to research by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute.
Republicans generally expressed disappointment.
“The Supreme Court disregarded the democratically enacted will of millions of Americans by forcing states to redefine the institution of marriage,” House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said.
“I’m very disappointed that the word of God hasn’t been upheld by #Scotus,” tweeted Representative Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican.
The Supreme Court had hinted at support for gay marriage in a 2013 decision that struck down part of a law denying federal benefits for same-sex spouses. At the time, only 12 states had gay marriage.
The 2013 ruling created a broad sense that the court would soon take the final step. The justices reinforced that perception by repeatedly letting pro-marriage lower court orders take effect. Those orders increased the number of states where gays could wed to 36, plus the District of Columbia, and helped acclimate Americans around the country to same-sex marriage.
The lead case is Obergefell v. Hodges, 14-556.