Obergefell v. Hodges
Obergefell v. Hodges is the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right across the country. Prior to this decision the issue had been litigated in many individual states, and 36 states and the District of Columbia allowed same-sex marriage.
The Court cited the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in its 5-4 decision. The Supreme Court has the final say on the constitutionality of laws passed by states.
The Court had for many years stayed away from making such a blanket judgement, instead allowing states to decide on their own: in the mid-1970s, the clerk in Boulder, Colorado, issued marriage licenses to gay couples while at the same time other states rushed to enact laws specifically banning same-sex marriages. When states like Alaska and Hawaii had cases that tested the constitutionality of banning same-sex marriages, many states began passing referenda narrowing the traditional, conventional definition of marriage to their state constitutions. In 2004 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issues an opinion that civil unions are by definition discriminatory and that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry; the same year, clerks around the country issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples that are later invalidated because they’re in violation of state law or practice. In 2006 New Jersey’s state supreme court determines that denying homosexual couples the right to marry is unconstitutional. In 2009 many states, starting with Vermont, change state statutes to allow same-sex marriages.
In November 2014 decisions by U.S. District Courts on appeals of cases testing the constitutionality of bans in various states struck down state laws regarding gay marriage with the exception of one district court that claimed it was bound by the 1972 Supreme Court decision on Baker v. Nelson, the previous precedent. This lack of unanimity forced the Supreme Court to take up the issue, so it combined a number of pending cases from various states under Obergefell v. Hodges.
Two men from Ohio, John Arthur and James Obergefell decided to wed in 2013 but as such a marriage was not permitted by authorities in Ohio, they traveled to Maryland where they could. When they returned to Ohio the state refused to recognize their union, so they sued the governor, John Kasich. The law in Ohio would not allow Obergefell to be named as “surviving spouse” on Arthur’s death certificate, one of the reasons for the suit.
The U.S. Supreme Court gathered many similar appeals under Obergefell v. Hodges before deciding on the constitutionality of state laws restricting marriage to couples constituted only by men and women.