Marriage equality comes to America

Marriage equality comes to America

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Marriage equality is now a nationwide reality.

In a landmark vote June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the U.S. Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.

The ruling mandated marriage equality in the states that had yet to sanction it, making the United States the 21st country to fully allow same-sex marriage in all jurisdictions.

The 5-4 opinion, issued in Obergefell v. Hodges, was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who found that denying same-sex couples marriage rights constitutes “a grave and continuing harm.”

“The imposition of this disability on gays and lesbians serves to disrespect and subordinate them,” he continued. “The Equal Protection Clause, like the Due Process Clause, prohibits this unjustified infringement of the fundamental right to marry.”

Joining Kennedy were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. Dissenting was Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, who wrote a scathing dissent calling the decision a “threat to American democracy.”

President Barack Obama was among the countless public figures who hailed the historic ruling. In an address outside the White House, Obama called the decision a “victory for America.”

“This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts: When all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free,” the president said.

Almost immediately after Friday’s ruling, same-sex couples rushed to clerks’ offices in the 13 states that had previously banned marriage equality: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Nebraska. Officials in Louisiana and Mississippi initially said they needed to wait for judicial orders from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals before licenses could be issued to same-sex couples, but the states finally fell in line on Monday.

Obergefell v. Hodges was a challenge to Ohio’s ban on marriage equality that was consolidated with cases from Tennessee, Kentucky and Michigan. The four fell under the purview of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld Ohio’s ban — dissenting with other federal appellate courts and giving SCOTUS the split it needed to finally act on the issue.

The ruling came two years to the day after SCOTUS issued another landmark ruling in a case brought by Philadelphia native Edie Windsor, which struck down a key portion of the federal ban on same-sex marriage. That decision allowed legally married same-sex couples access to some federal benefits but left open the question of whether states could ban same-sex marriage. June 26 was also the day, 12 years ago, when, in Lawrence v. Texas, SCOTUS stuck down sodomy laws across the country. Kennedy authored both opinions.

The Williams Institute estimated that about 150,000 same-sex couples live in the states that had lacked marriage equality; the organization puts the total number of same-sex couples in the nation at about 1 million.

Pennsylvania became the 19th state to sanction marriage equality on May 20, 2014, when a federal judge overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. A landslide of court decisions followed, bringing the total number of U.S. states with marriage equality to 37, plus Washington, D.C., prior to this week’s landmark ruling.

Community leaders in Pennsylvania praised the ruling but cautioned that LGBT Pennsylvanians still had a way to go for full equality, given the state’s lack of an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination law.

“It’s a truly great day when every person in America is treated equally when it comes to marrying the person you love. We couldn’t be more pleased with the court’s decision and this will mean a lot to couples and their families all across the country,” said Equality Pennsylvania executive director Ted Martin. “However, this victory is bittersweet here in Pennsylvania, because, as most Pennsylvanians are shocked to learn, it is still legal to be fired from your job, turned away from a business or evicted from an apartment just because of who you are or who you love.”

Mazzoni Center legal-services director Thomas Ude also lauded the ruling while remaining mindful of the work ahead.

“It’s a terrific, great ruling and another tremendous step forward for same-sex couples. It takes us the furthest towards equality yet,” Ude said. “Pennsylvanians can now be assured that their marriage will be respected in all 50 states they travel to or through. But there is still a lot of work to be done to make sure people’s lived experiences match that equality.”

Even though federal equal-opportunity law does protect from discrimination based on sex, through which Ude said precedent has been set to protect LGBT individuals in certain cases, state-level laws are still necessary in Pennsylvania and the 30 other states that lack measures covering both sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Explicit protections like [those in] HB 300 that Sen. Farnese and others plan to re-introduce remain incredibly important and will continue to be,” Ude said. “While there is some remedy through federal sex-based discrimination laws, people need more immediate protection.”

State Rep. Brian Sims (D-182nd Dist.) echoed Martin and Ude’s excitement and caution.

“I am thrilled for our country that the Supreme Court has come down on the side of equality. At the same time, I am concerned for people who are at risk of getting fired for getting married,” said Sims. “In most of Pennsylvania and many other states, it is still legal to fire someone or deny them an apartment, a hotel room or a table in a restaurant because they are LGBT.” 

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