Groups of same-sex couples sued their relevant state agencies in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee to challenge the constitutionality of those states’ bans on same-sex marriage or refusal to recognize legal same-sex marriages that occurred in jurisdictions that provided for such marriages. The plaintiffs in each case argued that the states’ statutes violated the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and one group of plaintiffs also brought claims under the Civil Rights Act. In all the cases, the trial court found in favor of the plaintiffs. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and held that the states’ bans on same-sex marriage and refusal to recognize marriages performed in other states did not violate the couples’ Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection and due process.
The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty. Baker v. Nelson, 409 U.S. 810 (1972) must be and is overruled, and state law-based restrictions are held invalid to the extent they exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.
The Obergefell v. Hodges Decision The Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to recognize the validity of same-sex marriages performed in other states. The Court concluded that the Constitution protects personal choices as to marriage, noting the fact that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects liberties which include “intimate choices”. In that way, the Court asserted that the Due Process Clause protects liberties associated with “choices about marriage” and that the constitution protects the “right to marry”. It characterized marriage as a liberty through the way in which it provides a couple with a means of finding “other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality”. It also noted that that aspect of marriage is “true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation”. The Court also held that the “right to marry” protects an “intimate association”—a freedom that courts such as the court in Lawrence have recognized should not be subject to criminal liability. The Court defined “intimate association” as a means of defining oneself “through commitment to” another person. It asserted that same-sex couples are just as entitled as opposite-sex couples to an “association” that “responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there”. In so doing, the Court suggested that denying the freedom of “intimate association” to same-sex couples denies them equal enjoyment of a freedom which addresses basic and universal human needs (or, within the legal framework, needs of citizens or “the people of the United States”). The Court then described the benefits of marriage to society and to individual citizens. It described the good that marriage does for society, including and the way in which it “safeguards children and families” within a stable family structure and protects children from the potential stigma of being in a non-traditional family not solidified by a marriage. Finally, the Court outlined the benefits afforded to those who are allowed to marry—namely, “dignity”, “expression, intimacy, and spirituality”—as well as financial (e.g., tax) benefits, suggesting that those who are not offered those benefits are being denied equal protection. It noted that, because marriage is considered to be a “keystone of the…social order,” the law offers a range of other exclusive benefits to married couples. It went on to describe how “locking” same-sex couples out of such a key societal institution would be not only unfair and unequal but also “demeaning” to them. The Court cited Zablocki and Loving to highlight how, in this case, there was, likewise, a violation of the Equal Protection Clause through the burdening of “a right of ‘fundamental importance’”—the “right to marry”—and through the “un-equal treatment of…[gay and heterosexual] couples”. Based on this reasoning, the Court concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment requires that valid, out-of-state same-sex marriages must be recognized as valid by all states.