With a 5-4 split verdict, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of same-sex marriage on the 26th of June 2015.The case, Obergefell v. Hodges, was brought to court by a total of thirty petitioners (fourteen couples and two widowers) after drawn-out proceedings within their respective states regarding the legal validity of same-sex marriages. Although the District Courts in each of the concerned states (Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan and Ohio) pronounced rulings in their favour, these decisions were collectively appealed against and reversed at the Sixth Circuit Court by the respondents: state officials responsible for enforcing laws that invalidated same-sex marriages in said states.
This case represented a combined appeal by all the petitioners against the decision of the Sixth Circuit Bench;the petitioners sought a writ of certiorari to quash the decision of the Sixth Circuit.
1. Whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires the state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?
2. Whether the Amendment also provides for same-sex marriages validated in one state to be recognized in another?
These questions become pertinent due to practical difficultiesresulting out of incongruous policy towards same-sex marriages in different states asraised by the petitioners including failure to be recognized asspouse for legal purposes anddifficulty in joint adoption of children.
In this case, the judges made use of the relation between the Due Process and the Equal Protection Clauses. Due process,found in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments,deals with the administration of justice and thus acts as a safeguard against arbitrary denial of life, liberty, or property by the Government outside the sanction of law. The Equal Protection Clause, also part of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction "the equal protection of the laws." The Court noted that rights implicit in ‘liberty’ and the rights secured by ‘equal protection’ may rest on different precepts and not be co-extensive and yet, each may be intrusive as to the meaning and the reach of the other. Majority used this profound connection to hold that the existing marriage laws burdened the liberty of same-sex couples and abridged their equality and that such laws must therefore be invalid.
The majority – under Justice Kennedy – upheld the claims of the Petitioners on four grounds. These grounds as well as related arguments as articulated from the Dissenting side have been recorded below.
1. PERSONAL CHOICE:
Based on definitions of marriage as “an esteemed institution” which “fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage” and thereby recognizing that“the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.” , the Majority held that the right to marry was one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men as reflected in Loving v. Virginia, which invalidated bans on interracial unions and in Zablockiv. Redhail,  which invalidated a law prohibiting fathers who were behind on child support from marrying. For this, the Due Process Clausewas interpreted to extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including ‘intimate choices’ that define personal identity and beliefs.
Dissent holds that through this decision, the Court has acted outside its powers. While the Court has the power to say what the law is, it cannot decide what the law should be. Through this decision, the Court invalidated the marriage laws of more than half the States and changed the accepted definition of a social institution that has acted as the bedrock for human society. Based on this definition, Dissent held that although marriage has been an evolving concept, the core meaning of marriage has endured and that the Court had essentially overstepped its powersthrough its decision.
With regard to the worries of the Dissent, Justice Kennedy claimed that it was a judicial duty to interpret the Constitution in order to identify and protect rights and that the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment were enacted to safeguard the people’s liberty as its meaning developed with time. In light of the constantly evolving definition of marriage, it was therefore crucial for the Court to intervene to protect new rights whose value have come to be recognized.
2. FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT:
The Majorityobservedthe fundamental nature of right to marry by virtue of its intrinsic value to the committed individuals relying on Griswold v. Connecticut, which held the Constitution protects the right of married couples to use contraception and Turner v. Safley which held that prisoners cannot be denied the right to marry. Kennedy J. also referred toLawrence v. Texaswhich invalidated laws that made same-sex intimacy a criminal act to explain that although Lawrenceconfirmed a dimension of freedom which allowed individuals to engage in intimate association without criminal liability, their freedom didn’t stop there: “outlaw to outcast may be a step forward, but it does not achieve the full promise of liberty, and for that reason the right to marry should be extended to same-sex couples”.
Relying on Munn v. Illinois which held that “liberty” encompasses nothing more than mere freedom from physical restraint or bounds of a prison, Dissent under Thomas J. and Scalia J., held that the Majority had misconstruedliberty. Since the petitioners cannot show imprisonment or physical restraint by the State for participating in same-sex relationships, they have no claim under “liberty”. Majority’s wrongful decision only served to jeopardize the “religious liberty” of the nation.
3. CHILDREN AND FAMILY:
With reference to Zablockiv. Redhailwhich held that “[T]he right to ‘marry, establish a home and bring up children’ is a central part of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause” andUnited States v. Windsorwhich observed that by giving recognition and legal structure to their parents’ relationship, marriage allows children “to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.”, Majority emphasized on the importance of beingraised in an environment with both parents. Therefore, not giving same-sex couples the right stigmatizes children by implying that they are lesser than peers as they are being brought up by unmarried parents.
In refutation to this reasoning, Thomas J. depended on the historical definitions of marriage provided by Locke and Weber which hold marriage to be a legal and voluntary union between a man and a woman and observed that the popular definition of marriage was not coined as a result of a pre-historic decision to exclude the gays and lesbians from it. Instead, it was due to the human need to procreate to survive. Therefore, for the good of the society and children, sexual relations that can procreate should be allowed to exist between a man and a woman.
Kennedy J. laid down this latter argument of Dissent by arguing that the ability,desire, or promise to procreate is not and has never been a prerequisite for a valid marriage in any State and that constitutional marriage right has many aspects, of which childbearing is only one.
4. KEYSTONE OF SOCIETAL ORDER:
Using Maynard v. Hill which held that marriage is “the foundation of the family and of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress” and “‘a great public institution, giving character to our whole civil polity’”, Majority observed the prized position of marriage in American tradition. By placing marriage at the center of social and legal order, a multitude of duties, rights and responsibilities are also linked with it. These aspects of marital status include: inheritance and property rights; rules of intestate succession; spousal privilege in the law of evidence; hospital access; medical decision making authority; adoption rights; the rights and benefits of survivors; birth and death certificates; campaign finance restrictions; health insurance; and child custody, support, visitation rules etc. By virtue of the exclusion of same-sex couples from the universal right to marriage, same-sex couples are denied the constellation of benefits that States have linked to marriage and were insteadunfairly consigned to instability.By excluding gays and lesbians from these entitlements and rights apart from the institution of marriage itself, the State further compounds the unequal treatment of gays and lesbians further demeaning them.
While Dissent acknowledged the individual problems faced by the Petitioners as a result of invalidity of their marriages, it argued that solving such problems on a policy levelwas not a subject of constitutional law. The actions of the Court in this instant overrides the states’ legitimate interest in preserving the traditional institution of marriage. In this instance, Dissent likened same-sex marriage to plural marriages in their non-traditional approach to the concept of marriage and stated that by legalizing same-sex marriages on grounds of providing them access to an institution that acts as a cornerstone to the society, plural marriages may also be required to be legalized in the future leading to absurd situations. Instead, Dissent suggested that such questions be laid in front of the people themselves to discuss and deliberate through political machinery and law-making and that it is the Court’s place to do justice and not to define what ‘justice’ might be.
In response to this, the Court further contends that there may be an initial inclination to await further legislation, litigation, and debate, but referenda, legislative debates, andgrassroots campaigns; studies and other writings; and extensive litigation in state and federal courts have led to an enhanced understanding of the issue. While the Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, individuals who are harmed need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right.
Goodridge, 440 Mass., at 322, 798 N. E. 2d, at 955.
388 U. S. 1, 12 (1967)
434 U. S. 374, 384 (1978)
381 U. S. 479
482 U. S. 78, 95
539 U. S. 558, 575
94 U.S. 113 (1877)
434 U. S. 374 (1978
570 U. S. ___ (2013)
 125 U. S. 190, 211 (1888)