Before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015 declaring laws banning same-sex marriages to be unconstitutional, a review of marriage laws throughout the country would have revealed that states that allow gay marriage far outnumbered those that did not. In fact, 37 states allowed same-sex marriages, so what were the issues preventing all states from granting marriage licenses to gay couples?
Marriage as a right regulated by the states
Each state sets its own standards for the marriages that it agrees to recognize as being legally valid. The issuance of a marriage license is just the first step in a process established by legislation. Couples must meet requirements as to age minimums and residency restrictions in order to be eligible to receive permission to marry.
State legislatures set the standards for marriage and determined who would be allowed to marry. For example, states have laws prohibiting marriages between individuals related by blood. They also have laws that allow the state to refuse to recognize as valid a marriage entered into when one or both of the parties is already married to another person.
The argument the dissenting justices made in the 2015 case was that the Court’s ruling was usurping the authority of the state legislatures by redefining the very concept of marriage stripping the states of the right to control marriage within their own borders. This argument focused on the long-held belief that marriage was a union between a man and a woman. The dissenters claimed that the action taken by the Court was and should remain a legislative function.
How the Court arrived at its decision
Speaking for the majority of the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the intimate relationship associated with marriage should not be denied to a couple simply because the partners were of the same sex. He rejected claims that procreation and childrearing were essential to a marriage and could not occur in a union unless the parties were of the opposite gender. Kennedy wrote that many traditional marriages exist in which the parties choose not to have children and many same-sex couples want to adopt children and raise them under the same union as straight married couples.
Bans on same-sex marriage violate the Constitution
The foundation for the ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges was the Fourteenth Amendment process and equal protection provisions. Denying a marriage license to a couple solely on the basis of the sexual orientation of the parties was preventing same-sex couples from enjoying the same rights and benefits granted to other couples.
The increase in the number of states that allow gay marriage to all 50 states and the District of Columbia does not affect marriages in other countries. The Supreme Court ruling is limited to marriages in the U.S., but the global media attention the decision triggered might cause countries with laws similar to those that existed in states that previously banned gay marriages to rethink their policies.