The U.S. Supreme Court this spring will take up cases seeking to overturn bans on same-sex marriage in four states, setting the stage for a national — and historic — ruling on the freedom to marry in America.
“This is the moment we’ve long been working toward,” said Evan Wolfson, of the Freedom to Marry, a national LGBT civil rights group.
The high court in mid-January agreed to review cases from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. In November 2014, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld anti-gay bans from those states.
Briefs are due this winter, oral arguments likely in mid-spring and a decision expected before the court’s July recess.
In June 2013, in two decisions, the court allowed to stand a federal ruling overturning California’s ban on same-sex marriage and overturned the provision in the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act that barred federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The high court hasn’t taken up the merits of a marriage case since then, but many lower courts have, and most have ruled for marriage equality.
Consider: Just 12 states and the District of Columbia allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry in the summer of 2013. Same-sex couples now can marry in 36 states plus D.C., mostly as a result of legal rulings.
The Supreme Court, in an order accepting the cases out of the Sixth Circuit, said it would consider two questions:
• Does the 14th Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?
• Does the 14th Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?
“We are thrilled the court will finally decide this issue,” James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Project, said in a statement. “The country is ready for a national solution that treats lesbian and gay couples fairly. Every single day we wait means more people die before they have a chance to marry, more children are born without proper protections, more people face medical emergencies without being able to count on recognition of their spouses.”
The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, which researches LGBT issues, estimated in 2013 there were at least 690,000 same-sex couples in the United States raising 200,000 children. The number of married same-sex couples, estimated at 130,000 in 2013, has increased by more than 50 percent over the past three years. But an estimated 25 percent of same-sex couples are living in one of the 14 states where they cannot legally marry or where same-sex marriage is not recognized.
“Our families, communities and the schools all see us as a family,” said Jayne Rowse, one of the plaintiffs in the Michigan equality case. “We juggle our jobs and a houseful of children and wouldn’t have it any other way. Soon, we hope to have the same recognition and share the same protections and responsibilities as all other families.”
Rowse and April DeBoer are raising four children and they went to trial for nine days last winter to fight for a license to marry, seeking legal safeguards and status for their family. They won in U.S. District Court, a victory that opened a window for hundreds of gay couples in Michigan to wed. The window closed with the state’s appeal to the Sixth Circuit, which upheld the anti-gay ban.
“This opportunity for our case to be heard by the Supreme Court gives us and families like ours so much reason to be hopeful,” said DeBoer.
In addition to DeBoer v. Snyder, the Supreme Court, which has extended the time allowed for oral arguments, will be considering Obergefell v. Hodges from Ohio, Tanco v. Haslam from Tennessee and Bourke v. Beshear from Kentucky.
“I can’t wait to walk up those steps and have the Supreme Court understand that we’re just like everyone else,” said James Obergefell, a plaintiff in the Ohio case.
In 2013, Obergefell flew to Maryland with his dying partner, John Arthur, so they could marry before Arthur’s death. When the couple returned to Ohio, they sued to force the state to list Arthur, who died 15 months ago, as married on his death certificate.
DID YOU KNOW?
The 14th Amendment, one of the Reconstruction amendments, was ratified on July 9, 1868. The amendment contains five sections and multiple clauses. The first section, with the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses, is one of the most litigated parts of the U.S. Constitution. It reads, “Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”