Citation. 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015)
Brief Fact Summary.
Several states prohibited LGBTQ+ marriage. One state was Ohio, which prohibited petitioner James Obergefell from being listed as the surviving spouse on his husband’s, John Arthur’s, death certificate.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Marriage equality is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution, and laws that prohibit marriage equality violate the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
One of the petitioners before the Court was James Obergefell. Obergefell was in a committed relationship with John Arthur, who was eventually diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosi (ALS). Obergefell and Arthur decided to marry before Arthur died, and traveled to from Ohio to Maryland, where LGBTQ+ couples could legally marry, to do so. They were married in Maryland in a medical transport plane, and Arthur died three months later. Ohio law prohibited Obergefell from being listed as the surviving spouse on Arthur’s death certificate.
Do state laws that prohibit LGBTQ+ couples from marrying violate the Constitution?
Yes, state laws that prohibit LGBTQ+ couples from marrying violate the Constitution.
Justice Roberts argued that it is the role of legislatures, not the Court, to decide the issue before the Court. He also argued that procreation is the primary purpose of marriage. According to Justice Roberts, the Court violated the principle that judges must exercise the utmost care when identifying implied fundamental rights. Under Washington v. Glucksberg, he argued, implied fundamental rights must be objectively, deeply rooted in American history and tradition, and implicit in the concept of ordered liberty. He argued that there is no Constitutional basis for ruling that marriage equality is a fundamental right.
Justice Roberts also argued that state laws prohibiting marriage equality did not violate the Equal Protection Clause, because states have a legitimate interest in preserving “the traditional institution of marriage.”
Justice Scalia argued that the Court did not have the authority to decide the issue before it. He also argued that the Fourteenth Amendment did not protect marriage equality, because when it was ratified in 1868, all states limited marriage to straight couples, and it was not considered unconstitutional for them to do so. He argued that the Court is not representative of the American people, and that the Court’s opinion contradicts history and tradition.
Justice Thomas argued that liberty is not implicated in state laws prohibiting marriage equality, and that the Court’s decision threatens religious liberty.
Justice Alito argued that the Court relied on the incorrect assumption that the purpose of civil marriage is to prompt the well-being of those who marry. He argued that marriage has traditionally been rooted in procreation, and that the states should be able to adhere to that understanding if they choose to. He also argued that Americans who disagree with marriage equality would be marginalized as a result of the Court’s holding.
Under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, states cannot infringe upon life, liberty , or property without due process of law. The fundamental liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights are covered by the Due Process Clause. Other fundamental liberties that involve personal choices central to dignity and autonomy are also protected by the Due Process Clause. The right to marry is one such fundamental right. The Court held that the reasons that the right to marry is fundamental also apply to the right to marriage equality for LGBTQ+ people. There are four such reasons: the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent to individual autonomy; the right supports a union between two people that is uniquely important; marriage safeguards children, and; the institution of marriage is critical to social order. According to the Court, marriage is critical for social order in part because states confer a host of legal benefits upon married people.
In its analysis, the Court established that history and tradition are relevant considerations when determining whether something is a fundamental right, but that they are not determinative—an evolved understanding of liberty is also an important consideration to the inquiry.
According to the Court, laws prohibiting marriage equality also violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, in part because the laws subordinate members of the LGBTQ+ community, thereby treating them unequally.
The Court held that democracy is generally the appropriate avenue for change, but that Courts can intervene when fundamental rights are violated.
Finally, the Court rejected the argument that allowing marriage equality would harm the institution of marriage by leading to fewer heterosexual marriages. The Court also established that the First Amendment would continue to protect individuals and organizations that wish to advocate against marriage equality in the name of religion.
In issuing this holding, the Court overruled Baker v. Nelson.