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U.S. Supreme Court rules all states must recognize same-sex marriages

The ruling is rooted in the understanding that societies evolve and their understanding of marriage and of homosexuality do as well.

Rea Carey, left, kisses her wife Margaret Conway after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the U.S. Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Same-sex marriage is a constitutional right and must be recognized in all 50 states, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark decision released Friday morning. The majority summarized its decision thus:

The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a character protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.

It was a 5-4 ruling with a familiar configuration of the four liberal justices plus Anthony Kennedy, the “swing” justice whose vote can often create a narrow majority and who wrote the majority ruling.

The ruling was rooted in the understanding that societies evolve and their understanding of marriage and of homosexuality do also. It used to be common in many states to have laws banning interracial marriages until the justices in Loving v. Virginia in 1967 ruled that such bans were unconstitutional. From Friday’s ruling:

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The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. Changes, such as the decline of arranged marriages and the abandonment of the law of coverture, have worked deep transformations in the structure of marriage, affecting aspects of marriage once viewed as essential. These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution.

It used to be common for states to outlaw sexual acts between members of the same gender, a practice that the court upheld as recently as 1986, but then overruled in 2003, the majority opinion noted. The court rooted its ruling in the constitutional principles of “due process” and “equal protection.” From the ruling:

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.

The majority addressed the question of whether a marriage between a same-sex couple is legally different because of procreation:

This is not to say that the right to marry is less meaningful for those who do not or cannot have children. An ability, desire, or promise to procreate is not and has not been a prerequisite for a valid marriage in any State.

The four most conservative justices dissented and each wrote their own explanation of why they disagreed. For the first time in his tenure, Chief Justice John Roberts read his dissent from the bench. From Roberts’ dissent:

This Court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be. The people who ratified the Constitution authorized courts to exercise “neither force nor will but merely judgment.” [That’s from the Federalist Papers.]

Although the policy arguments for extending marriage to same-sex couples may be compelling, the legal arguments for requiring such an extension are not. The fundamental right to marry does not include a right to make a State change its definition of marriage. And a State’s decision to maintain the meaning of marriage that has persisted in every culture throughout human history can hardly be called irrational. In short, our Constitution does not enact any one theory of marriage. The people of a State are free to expand marriage to include same-sex couples, or to retain the historic definition.

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Roberts explained and softened his opposition with this statement:

If you are among the many Americans — of whatever sexual orientation — who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.

Justice Antonin Scalia, followed the same logic as Roberts only, as one might expect, with a more colorful tone:

I join The chief justice’s opinion in full. I write separately to call attention to this Court’s threat to American democracy.

The substance of today’s decree is not of immense personal importance to me. The law can recognize as marriage whatever sexual attachments and living arrangements it wishes, and can accord them favorable civil consequences, from tax treatment to rights of inheritance. Those civil consequences — and the public approval that conferring the name of marriage evidences — can perhaps have adverse social effects, but no more adverse than the effects of many other controversial laws. So it is not of special importance to me what the law says about marriage.

It is of overwhelming importance, however, who it is that rules me. 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. The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact — and the furthest extension one can even imagine — of the Court’s claimed power to create “liberties” that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention. This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.

Justice Clarence Thomas, also in dissent, endorsed Scalia’s arguments and added that the ruling undermined the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom by reducing the ability of religious institutions to define marriage.

Justice Samuel Alito repeated the main themes of the dissenters above and added:

Today’s decision usurps the constitutional right of the people to decide whether to keep or alter the traditional understanding of marriage. The decision will also have other important consequences.

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It will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.