Obergefell v. Hodges: Celebrating the Anniversary of the Landmark Same-Sex Marriage Supreme Court Case

June 26th holds a special place in the history of civil rights in the United States. On that day, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a legal right long sought by the gay community: the right to marriage. It also confirmed that denying gay and lesbian couples the right to marry is unconstitutional.

This Pride Month, we are examining the 2015 Supreme Court landmark ruling that established the right for same-sex couples to marry. In Obergefell v. Hodges, featured in Milestone Documents of the Supreme Court and Milestone Documents in American History, 2nd edition, the Court held in a 5–4 decision that same-sex couples across the United States had an equal right to marry and that states had to recognize legal marriages performed in other states. Obergefell expressly overruled the Court’s previous decision in Baker v. Nelson, in which the justices rendered a one-sentence dismissal in 1972 of a Minnesota appeals case, which held that the issue of same-sex marriage did not rise to “a substantial federal question” and was not properly to be heard before the Court. Obergefell has proved to be a landmark in civil rights legislation and is a reflection of public opinion in the United States, as the rights of homosexuals and their acceptance as equals has become a legal norm and a societal norm as well.

The Path to Marriage Equality

In May 1970, a pair of gay rights activists at the University of Minnesota, Richard Baker and John McConnell, went to the county courthouse in Minneapolis to apply for a marriage license. The Stonewall Inn riot in New York City had taken place a year earlier, and the idea of gay civil rights had only recently been broached as a topic in American political culture. Homosexuality was still largely condemned by most Americans; Baker and McConnell were brave for simply admitting their sexual preferences, let alone asking to have their relationship sanctioned by a legal union.

The couple’s application for a marriage license was rejected by the county registrar on the ground that the two applicants were of the same sex. Baker and McConnell subsequently filed a lawsuit to demand that their application be accepted and that they be allowed to marry. They charged that their constitutional rights, particularly under the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, had been violated. In 1971, the case made its way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, where one of the justices simply spun his chair around so as not to look at the attorney arguing the men’s case. Upon the state’s dismissal of their case, Baker and McConnell appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, again arguing that their rights to life, liberty, and property as outlined in the Fourteenth Amendment were being denied and that their right to privacy as granted by the Ninth Amendment had been violated too. 

In reviewing  the case in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the status of marriage was an issue to be determined by the states, making a one-sentence dismissal: “The appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question.” The dismissal blocked federal courts from hearing other cases on same-sex marriage, leaving the decision to declare its legality up to the states. In response, Maryland, Virginia, Florida, Michigan, and Wyoming passed laws in the 1970s defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, effectively stifling any argument over the legality of gay marriages for decades.

Cultural Shifts and American Acceptance of Homosexuality

The acceptance of homosexuality in American society and culture grew in the years after 1972, but a clear line was drawn as to the legal precedents for its acceptance, especially on a state-by-state basis. Discrimination against gays in the workplace became less and less acceptable, gay characters became a norm in media productions, and the AIDS crisis built sympathy for the gay community in the wider culture. Statutes were passed in San Francisco and the District of Columbia that allowed domestic partners of any sexual orientation to register as a couple in order to share benefits. In response to the lawsuit Baehr v. Lewin, brought by three same-sex couples, the Hawaii Supreme Court asserted in 1993 that banning same-sex marriage violated the state constitution. 

Simultaneously, however, the federal government offered little in the way of funding for AIDS research until well into the 1990s. In response to the Hawaii court case, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, with broad bipartisan support; the bill was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. DOMA specified that only heterosexual couples would receive federal legal benefits, thus defying the relaxed laws passed in San Francisco and the District of Columbia. Moreover, the challenge to gay marriage represented by the decision of the Hawaii Supreme Court was reversed when voters in that state approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. In the election year of 2004, ten states enacted state constitutional amendments blocking gay marriages, and nine more followed in the next two years. 

If Americans in general became more and more tolerant of homosexuality and homosexuals, they were certainly not tolerant of same-sex marriage.

The popularity of civil unions for gay couples grew in specific states, however, and in the eyes of the public in those states. Vermont legalized gay civil unions in 2000, and in 2004 Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In fact, at the same time as those nineteen states passed laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, another fifteen states passed laws and constitutional amendments accepting the institution of same-sex marriage, setting the stage for a legal and cultural showdown to take place in the Supreme Court. The court had heard a few cases since 1972 that had chipped away at its dismissal of gay marriage as a matter for the states to decide. The most important of them was United States v. Windsor (2013), which ruled that section 3 of DOMA, defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, was unconstitutional. Other U.S. circuit courts of appeal ruled against DOMA in other cases, while at the same time public opinion grew more sympathetic to the idea that the makeup of a union between two people was a matter of personal privacy. A court case was needed to turn public and political opinion into a legal reality.

The Court Cases that Challenged Oppositions to Same-Sex Unions

The challenge centered on a court case heard in Ohio, Obergefell v. Kasich (later retitled Obergefell v. Wymyslo). John Arthur was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, colloquially known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a terminal illness. He was in the late stages of the disease and wanted to have the Ohio registrar recognize his partner, James Obergefell, as his surviving spouse on his death certificate so that Obergefell would be able to receive spousal death benefits. Arthur and Obergefell had married in Maryland two years earlier. The Ohio registrar intended to grant the request. However, the state of Ohio did not recognize same-sex marriage and the Ohio attorney general’s office intervened to defend the ban on same-sex marriage rights. In addition, four Ohio same-sex couples brought a claim seeking to list both parents on their children’s birth certificates. Three of the couples lived in Ohio, and all of the children had been born in Ohio.

The cases in Ohio challenged the statutes enacted by state legislatures across the nation in opposition to legal same-sex unions and the family and privacy issues that resulted from them. Other cases arose around the same time that mirrored those challenges. In Tennessee four same-sex couples sued to force the state to recognize their marriages, which had been performed in California and New York. In Michigan a same-sex couple, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, both nurses, sought to be able to adopt three special needs children. The couple challenged a state law that prohibited same-sex couples from adopting children, limiting second-parent adoption to married couples and defining marriage as only between a man and a woman. In Kentucky, Gregory Bourke and Michael DeLeon brought a claim on behalf of their two adopted children and were joined by three other couples with adopted children. Bourke and DeLeon had been married in Canada, and the other couples had been married in Iowa, California, and Connecticut.

All these legal actions prevailed in the lower federal district courts. In Obergefell v. Kasich a temporary restraining order was issued, and a hearing was scheduled to determine whether it should be granted. Arthur died before the hearing could be held, and the state moved within a week to have the case dismissed as moot. Judge Timothy Black of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio denied the motion and ruled that Ohio must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

The Landmark Ruling: Obergefell v. Hodges 

All of these cases were appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which reversed the trial court on all of the cases and reinstated the same-sex marriage bans. The U.S. Supreme Court, in turn, agreed to hear all of the cases and consolidated them for review. In its ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court reversed the Sixth Circuit, holding that the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and that same-sex marriages must be recognized when lawfully licensed and performed in another state. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that the Fourteenth Amendment protected fundamental liberties, which extended to certain personal choices, including personal identity, and that marriage has been recognized as a personal privacy interest. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion.

Obergefell and his lawyer react to the historic Supreme Court decision.

Obergefell and the Culmination of a Decades-long Battle for Same-Sex Marriage

The impact of Obergefell cannot be understated. It became a landmark ruling advancing equality and liberty rights for individuals in same-sex marriages. Critics have agreed with the four dissenting justices (John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito) that the Court overextended its role as arbiter of the Constitution and should have left the issue to state legislatures. Other legal scholars agree that the Court performed its appropriate role: protecting the liberty and equality of those who have been traditionally discriminated against and extending to them the same rights of equality long regarded as fundamental to others. Until the moment before Justice Kennedy read his short summation from the bench, it was unclear exactly how the Court would rule. However, as Justice Kennedy had drafted virtually every Supreme Court majority case regarding the expansion of LGBTQ rights, there was speculation that the outcome would be favorable to the same-sex community.

As Obergefell was based firmly in the Constitution, the only way to overturn it would be by an amendment to the Constitution or a reversal by the Supreme Court in a future case. Obergefell opened the door to same-sex marriage in the fourteen remaining states that had banned it and gave legal protection to those in other court rulings that were now bound by a decision made by the highest Court.

After the opinion was released, hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples obtained marriage licenses and were married. Just one year after the opinion was released, same-sex marriages increased by 22 percent. Along with those marriages came the corresponding state and federal spousal rights previously enjoyed only by opposite-sex couples. Some of those rights include more favorable tax treatment, equal rights as parents, and certain estate benefits. The legal community began to prepare to address such issues as child-custody rights, adoption, divorce, and estate planning with same-sex couples. Moreover, nationwide employers needed to reconsider health-care benefits packages, retirement packages, and other employment-related issues. Previously, spousal and family benefits had applied only to opposite-sex couples.

It was estimated that within one year of the decision, the national economy was boosted by approximately $1.58 billion from same-sex weddings alone.  An increase of $102 million in state and local tax revenue was realized at the one-year anniversary of the Obergefell decision. The economic impact of the expansion of the right to marriage has been substantial. This trend is expected to continue in the areas of estate planning and probate as more married same-sex couples age, particularly within the large baby boomer generation. 

Obergefell made the United States the twenty-third country in the world to recognize marriage equality. As of 2020, twenty-eight countries recognize same-sex marriages. Thus the impact of Obergefell can be felt on a societal level as the culmination of a decades-long battle for equality by the LGBTQ community. 

Learn more about Obergefell v. Hodes, along with other landmark Supreme Court rulings, in Milestone Documents of the Supreme Court and Milestone Documents in American History, 2nd edition!