Around the nation in states like Ohio, Texas and Kentucky, couples lined up outside county offices after the ruling, even though it was unclear when their local clerks would comply. In Houston, Dan Klett, his fiancé, Dan Wharton, and their 6-month-old daughter were turned away after the Texas attorney general told clerks to hold off on issuing licenses. Still, even that couldn’t dampen their excitement over the moment. “It’s an historic moment, a precious moment for every American,” said Klett, 55, a pharmaceutical salesman.
The landmark decision came down on the second anniversary of the ruling in Windsor v. U.S., which struck down as unconstitutional the federal Defense of Marriage Act and on the 10th anniversary of Lawrence v. Texas, which ended all state-level bans on private, consensual gay sex between adults. It will add some zing to this weekend’s annual gay pride festivities in San Francisco and New York, where the Stonewall riots that kicked off the modern gay-rights movement occurred 46 years ago Sunday.
Polls have increasingly shown a majority of Americans in support of same-sex marriage rights, a dramatic reversal from just 11 years ago, when President George W. Bush ran for re-election aggressively opposing it. His razor-thin margin of victory in 2004 has often been credited to the presence of ballot measures to ban gay marriage in 11 states — particularly in swing-state Ohio — drawing a surge in turnout among religious conservative voters.
Now in the GOP-led U.S. Senate, a majority of its members support same-sex marriage, including Ohio’s Rob Portman, who changed his mind after his son came out as gay. But the Republican Party issued a statement decrying Friday’s ruling, and several GOP presidential hopefuls also criticized it, but a number of prominent conservatives support the decision, including Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and tax reformer Grover Norquist.
“I really hope this can change some hearts and minds in my party,” conservative commentator S.E. Cupp said on CNN. She warned the GOP that she believes the party will become irrelevant if it does not catch up with broader American opinion. Gay people, she said, “just don’t want to be second-class citizens.”
In another indication of the mainstream acceptance of same-sex marriage, several major corporations were prepared for the ruling, which turned out as most observers expected, with ads on Facebook and Twitter congratulating LGBT people on their new-won right. AT&T, Google and Mastercard got out there early.
The day was emotional for many. In Washington, Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the Ohio case, stood on the Supreme Court steps declaring that the decision meant that “‘gay marriage’ will soon be a term of the past. We’ll simply be married.”
Supporters of LGBT rights urged some caution. The ruling “is by no means the last hurdle to be cleared,” said Robin Lenhardt, a law professor at Fordham University in New York. “Important questions remain about the protections to be afforded LGBT individuals in areas such as employment.”
But few activists could have expected that a court populated by a majority of justices appointed by Republican presidents would reach this point on gay rights.
At the start of this term of the court, it seemed the justices were loath to deal with the matter. By fall 2014, appellate circuit courts had consistently upheld decisions by federal district courts that struck down bans on gay marriage in state after state, basing their rulings on a reading of the 2013 decision in Windsor v. U.S. The justices let those decisions stand and allowed marriages to commence in more than 15 additional states, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggesting the court may not need to do anything if all the circuits agreed.
Then in November, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld marriage bans in cases from each of the states in its jurisdiction — Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky. That decision created a conflict among the circuits, and in January the court decided that it had to intervene and settle the matter.
Both sides came away cautiously optimistic after the oral arguments on April 28. Kennedy sent mixed signals in his comments and questions, noting that the traditional version of marriage “has been with us for millennia … It’s very difficult for the court to say, ‘Oh, we know better.’”
Yet later, to lawyers for the states aiming to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, he said he believed gays and lesbians can “understand the nobility and the sacredness of marriage.” They may say, he posited, “We know we can’t procreate, but we want the other attributes of it in order to show that we, too, have a dignity that can be fulfilled.”
In the end, it was about dignity to Kennedy, who also authored the Windsor and Lawrence decisions. “It suffices for us to acknowledge that adults may choose to enter upon this relationship in the confines of their homes and their own private lives and still retain their dignity as free persons,” he wrote in Lawrence. In Windsor he wrote, “It seems fair to conclude that, until recent years, many citizens had not even considered the possibility that two persons of the same sex might aspire to occupy the same status and dignity as that of a man and woman in lawful marriage.”
That is all same-sex marriage proponents wanted, Rowse said through tears and hugs. “We’re just like everybody else. We’re human beings.”