The Supreme Court on Friday made same-sex marriage legal across the United States in a landmark decision that culminates two decades of litigation over marriage and gay rights.
Gay and lesbian couples could already marry in 37 states and the District of Columbia. The court's ruling means the remaining 14 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, must stop enforcing their bans on same-sex marriage — prohibitions that the high court said violate the Constitution's equal protection clause.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, just as he did in the court's other three major gay rights cases since 1996.
"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family," he wrote, joined by the court's four more liberal justices. "[The challengers] ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."
As Kennedy read his opinion, court spectators, including lead plaintiff James Obergefell, wiped away tears of joy.
Outside, Obergefell held up a photo of his late spouse, John Arthur, and said the ruling establishes that "our love is equal." He added, "This is for you, John."
President Barack Obama placed a congratulatory phone call to Obergefell, which he took amid a throng of reporters outside the courthouse.
Speaking a few minutes later at the White House, Obama praised the decision as "justice that arrives like a thunderbolt." He said it was an affirmation of the principle that "all Americans are created equal."
The four dissenting justices each filed separate opinions explaining their views, all agreeing that states and their voters should have been left with the power to decide who may marry.
"This court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in dissent. He read a summary of his dissent from the bench, the first time he has done so in nearly 10 years on the court.
"If you are among the many Americans — of whatever sexual orientation — who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means, celebrate today's decision," he said. "But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it."
Justice Antonin Scalia said he is concerned not so much about same-sex marriage but about "this court's threat to American democracy." Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas also dissented.
The ruling will not take effect immediately, because the court gives the losing side roughly three weeks to ask for reconsideration. But some state officials and county clerks might decide there is little risk in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The cases before the court involved laws from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Those states have not allowed same-sex couples to marry within their borders and have refused to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
Just two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied a range of federal government benefits to married same-sex couples.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor formed the majority with Kennedy on Friday, the same lineup as two years ago.
The earlier decision, in United States v. Windsor, did not address the validity of state marriage bans, but courts across the country, with few exceptions, said its logic compelled them to invalidate state laws that prohibited gay and lesbian couples from marrying.
The number of states allowing same-sex marriage grew rapidly, from 12 before Windsor.
There are an estimated 390,000 married same-sex couples in the U.S., according to UCLA's Williams Institute, which tracks the demographics of gay and lesbian Americans. It estimates that 70,000 couples living in states that do not currently permit them to wed will get married in the next three years. Roughly 1 million same-sex couples, married and unmarried, live together in the U.S., according to the institute.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press