Landmark Gay Marriage Case Heard at US Supreme Court

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For two and a half hours on Apr. 28, 2015, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in a landmark case that could decide the fate of gay marriage in the United States.

The Supreme Court had not entered the debate over legal gay marriage until there was a conflict amongst federal courts. After numerous judicial wins for the gay marriage movement over the past two years, in Nov. 2014 the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld gay marriage bans in four states, thus prompting the Supreme Court to weigh in.

Obergefell v. Hodges, a consolidation of six separate cases from Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky, concerns two related issues: whether or not the US Constitution guarantees the right to wed for couples of the same gender, and whether or not states are bound by the Constitution to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

During the arguments, which ran more than twice as long as is typical, according to the New York Times, the justices expressed skepticism for both sides of the debate. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is seen by many as the potential swing vote that could determine the case’s outcome, questioned whether it was the Court’s place to change the definition of marriage: “This definition has been with us for millennia. And it –­­ it’s very difficult for the Court to say, oh, well, we –­­ we know better.” However, Justice Kennedy also questioned the assumption that legalizing gay marriage would be a detriment to children, stating that “it’s just a wrong premise” to say that gay couples cannot bond with a child.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. also focused on gay marriage proponents’ wish to alter a long-held definition: “you’re not seeking to join the institution, you’re seeking to change what the institution is.”

Justice Elena Kagan related the right to same-sex marriage to the right to marry already established for other groups: “Is there a right to interracial marriage? Is there a right to marry if you’re a prisoner? We [the Supreme Court] just said there’s a right to marry, that is fundamental and that everybody is entitled to it unless there’s some good reason for the State to exclude it –­­ exclude them. So why shouldn’t we adopt the exact same understanding here?”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer questioned whether “purely religious reasons on the part of some people” is sufficient to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. expressed concern over same-sex marriage leading to the acceptance of other nontraditional forms of marital union: “Suppose we rule in your favor in this case and then after that, a group consisting of two men and two women apply for a marriage license. Would there be any ground for denying them a license?”

A decision in the case is expected by the end of June. If the Court rules that same-sex marriage is not a constitutional right, the 22 states that have had gay marriage bans struck down by federal courts could seek to have the bans reinstated. Currently, same-sex marriage is legal in 37 states and 13 states have gay marriage bans in place.

Sources:

Joan Biskupic, “Top U.S. Court Appears on Cusp of Declaring Right to Gay Marriage,” reuters.com, Apr. 26, 2015

Amanda Holpuch, “Same-Sex Marriage: US Supreme Court Has Few Choices but to ‘End the Debate’,” theguardian.com, Apr. 27, 2015

Lawrence Hurley, “Divided Supreme Court Wrestles with Gay Marriage Case,” reuters.com, Apr. 28, 2015

Adam Liptak, “Gay Marriage Arguments Divide Supreme Court Justices,” nytimes.com, Apr. 28, 2015

Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court to Decide Marriage Rights for Gay Couples Nationwide,” nytimes.com, Jan. 16, 2015

New York Times Editorial Board, “A Landmark Gay Marriage Case at the Supreme Court,” nytimes.com, Apr. 28, 2015

Michael S. Rosenwald, “How Jim Obergefell Became the Face of the Supreme Court Gay Marriage Case,” washingtonpost.com, Apr. 6, 2015

Nina Totenberg, “Legal Battle Over Gay Marriage Hits The Supreme Court Tuesday,” npr.org, Apr. 27, 2015

Richard Wolf and Brad Heath, “Justices Appear Cautious, Divided on Same-Sex Marriage,” usatoday.com, Apr. 28, 2015

US Supreme Court, Obergefell v. Hodges (transcript of oral arguments), supremecourt.gov, Apr. 28, 2015