In a 5-4 majority opinion written by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court provided a long-awaited victory for those fighting for the freedom to marry those they love-regardless of gender. The opinion held that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry; a right now protected by the Constitution itself.
Historically, the fight for marriage equality has been a grueling struggle, with those seeking the ability to marry their loved ones facing hatred, discrimination, and even violence. Prior to 2003, sodomy laws were still in effect, which criminalized various forms of sex and often targeted private same-sex physical relationships. Before 2004, virtually no state in the country had legalized same-sex marriage. Since then, same-sex marriage was legalized in 38 states to varying degrees, from recognizing all marriages to only recognizing marriages granted in other states. Gradually, public opinion the has shifted towards accepting marriage equality, but opponents still challenged progress where they could. Those who sought to keep the marriage institution exclusive have argued about the religious sanctity of marriage, and felt that allowing same-sex couples to share in that institution would somehow cheapen it. Justice Kennedy, in the majority opinion, addressed those concerns:
“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
“The opinion, and the fundamental right it affords, is groundbreaking. In the earlier case of US v. Windsor, the Supreme Court held that the US government must recognize all same-sex marriages in states that already legalized the unions. While the decision struck down major provisions in the Defense of Marriage Act that would’ve nullified legalized same-sex marriage, it didn’t provide much relief for those living in states where marriage inequality still existed. By casting same-sex couples’ right to marriage as a fundamental right, the Court now provides constitutional protection to those that had been ignored by their individual states. The Constitution allows the states to create their own legislation through the democratic voting process, but none of that legislation may infringe on people exercising their fundamental rights. This means no legislation may be created that seriously impairs a couple’s ability to marry due to gender. No longer will same-sex couples have to face legal roadblocks that plagued them in the past decade: having their marriage acknowledged in one state but not in another; having to move to a different state in order to have the ability to marry their loved one; having to reconcile the fact that they weren’t awarded the same rights that different-sex spouses enjoyed (including rights involving housing, medical care, and estate division). No longer will same-sex couples trapped in hostile states be condemned to live a second-class life due to the intolerance of their neighbors.
A plethora of rights are now available to all same-sex married couples across the country. They can now have next-of-kin status for emergency medical decisions, have family visitation rights for hospitals and prisons, and can receive social security and other benefits from their spouse. They can also inherit property without the presence of a will, can live in “families only” housing developments, and can obtain immigration and residency benefits for their noncitizen spouse. Many other rights and benefits that were once withheld from a large segment of the population can now be enjoyed. Loree Varella, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016 collaborated on this blog. She is Associate Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal and will soon serve as Managing Research Editor of that publication.