Nation/World

In 5-4 vote, Supreme Court rules same-sex marriage is a right

WASHINGTON -- Same sex marriage is legal nationwide following a ruling issued Friday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A long chain of court cases led the way to the Supreme Court, where justices ruled 5-4 that the 14th Amendment of the Constitution requires that states license same-sex marriages and recognize legal marriages performed in other states. The decision reverses the ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, at times citing Confucius, Cicero and Alexis de Tocqueville.

Fourteen people whose same-sex partners are deceased brought the case, claiming their constitutional rights were violated by states that refused to marry them or recognize their marriages.

"It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage," Kennedy wrote. "Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

Though it's likely a coincidence due to end-of-term decisions, June 26 is also the date for two other significant gay rights cases. On the same day in 2003, the court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas striking down criminal statutes barring intimate conduct by people of the same sex. In 2013, the court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional in United States v. Windsor.

Each of four justices who disagreed with the majority -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito -- wrote his own dissenting opinion. Each lamented the dangers to democracy brought with the majority opinion.

Alaska is one of 37 states that already allow same-sex marriages, and like many of those, the decision is due to an appeals court ruling that would have been overturned if the high court had ruled otherwise.

In 1998, Alaska voters approved an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman. But last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that marriage bans were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court denied Alaska's request to stay that ruling, and same-sex couples began legally exchanging vows in Alaska in October.

According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, 158 same-sex couples were married in the state as of June 16.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the only member of the congressional delegation who supports same-sex marriage, quickly issued a statement in support of the court's ruling Friday.

"I support marriage equality, and believe today's ruling is the right one as it reinforces limited government and promotes family values," she said. "The decision keeps governments out of the most private and personal aspects of peoples' lives, supports adults' decisions to make lifetime commitments to one another, and encourages more families to form."

Murkowski said she believes "marriage equality is fair and equal public policy," and the ruling "respects religious freedoms by remaining a civil practice that stops at the church door."

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker was brief in his response to the ruling, saying only that it "brings finality to this issue that has divided Alaskans."

President Barack Obama called the ruling a "victory for America" in remarks delivered from the White House Rose Garden on Friday.

"Our nation was founded on a bedrock principle: We are all created equal. The project of each generation is to bridge the meaning of those founding words with the realities of changing times," Obama said.

Often progress is slow and incremental, he said.

"Then sometimes there are days like this -- when that slow steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt," he said.

"America should be very proud."

But Obama cautioned respect for those who believe differently, and noted that on gay rights issues, "compared to many other issues, America's shift has been so quick."

"I know that Americans of good will continue to hold a wide range of views on this issue. Opposition in some cases has been based on sincere and deeply held beliefs. All of us who welcome today's news should be mindful to that fact, recognize different viewpoints, revere our deep commitment to religious freedom."

Obama was scheduled to deliver a eulogy in South Carolina later in the day, at the funeral of one of nine murdered, allegedly by a white supremacist, during a church prayer meeting last week. The president was somber and halting in his speech after the Supreme Court ruling.

"But today should also give us hope that on the many issues with which we grapple, often painful, real change is possible. Shifts in hearts and minds is possible," he said.

Changes in hearts and minds on the issue of same-sex marriage should be the driver of changes to the law -- not the court, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a dissent joined by Scalia and Thomas.

"Supporters of same-sex marriage have achieved considerable success persuading their fellow citizens — through the democratic process — to adopt their view," Roberts said, pointing to decisions to allow same-sex marriage by voters and legislators in 11 states and the District of Columbia. "That ends today. Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law," he wrote.

"If you are among the many Americans -- of whatever sexual orientation -- who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today's decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it," Roberts wrote.

Alaska Republican Party Chairman Peter S. Goldberg said that while "Republicans are very independent-minded on this issue," many are disappointed that the decision has been taken away from the states.

"This shifting of power from the states to the federal government raises grave concerns for people of many faiths, who are rightfully concerned about whether this will encroach further on their constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and the right of conscience."

Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican, agreed.

"I had hoped that the Supreme Court would have left this issue for states to decide," he said. The ruling "short-circuited the democratic process on this very important issue on which Americans and Alaskans of good faith have differences of opinion."

Nevertheless, Sullivan said, he would respect the court's decision and noted the importance of defending "the religious liberty of all Americans."

Rep. Don Young echoed those state-rights sentiments and said his personal view, "guided by my religious beliefs, is that marriage should be defined as a union between one man and one woman."

Scalia, joined by Thomas, penned a scathing rebuke of the majority opinion's unilateral decision on the matter of marriage.

"The substance of today's decree is not of immense personal importance to me. The law can recognize as marriage whatever sexual attachments and living arrangements it wishes, and can accord them favorable civil consequences, from tax treatment to rights of inheritance," he wrote.

But the majority's ruling "says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court," Scalia wrote. "Until the courts put a stop to it, public debate over same-sex marriage displayed American democracy at its best. Individuals on both sides of the issue passionately, but respectfully, attempted to persuade their fellow citizens to accept their views."

Scalia, known for his sharp-tongued opinions, called the majority decision "a naked judicial claim" and a "judicial Putsch," remarked upon the lack of geographical, educational and religious diversity of the court, and said the "opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic," mocking numerous passages in the decision.

"The stuff contained in today's opinion has to diminish this Court's reputation for clear thinking and sober analysis," he wrote.

Remarking upon the majority decision's lofty opening passage, Scalia said should he ever join such an opinion, "I would hide my head in a bag. The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie."

Thomas, in an opinion joined by Scalia, spoke extensively of framing of the Constitution, and the difference between the case at hand and race-related marriage cases that came before it.

"Our Constitution -- like the Declaration of Independence before it -- was predicated on a simple truth: One's liberty, not to mention one's dignity, was something to be shielded from -- not provided by -- the State. Today's decision casts that truth aside," Thomas wrote.

Thomas warned that the majority decision "threatens the religious liberty our Nation has long sought to protect."

Alito, providing the court's clearest defense of marriage between one man and one woman, argued that the decision "usurps the constitutional right of the people to decide whether to keep or alter the traditional understanding of marriage."

He warned too that the decision will have social consequences.

"It will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy," Alito wrote. "I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools."

Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action, also worries about the outcome for religious freedom but said earlier this week that a ruling legalizing same-sex marriage "is really only the beginning of the conversation" about the meaning of religious liberty and judicial overreach.

Just as Roe v. Wade did not end the conversation about abortion, this case is unlikely to be the final word on same-sex marriage, Minnery said.

For now, his group is urging ministries and churches "to make sure that those churches that hold to a biblical and natural view of marriage and sexuality" have that clearly delineated to provide additional legal protection against being forced to perform same-sex marriages.

The decision "should not be construed as a mandate that persons authorized to perform marriages should be compelled to perform same-sex marriages, if doing so violates their beliefs," state Republican Party chairman Goldberg said Friday.

"To be fair," Minnery said, "I wouldn't say that everyone in the LGBT community is … waiting to force a pastor to marry them." But many are "certainly licking their chops to make sure" all businesses provide other wedding services, such as flowers and photography, he said.

And issues face religious schools and other organizations that are opposed to same-sex marriage, Minnery noted.

"This is a much bigger can of worms than a lot of people" realize, he said.

In Washington, D.C., a crowd of thousands gathered in front of the Supreme Court as the ruling was issued Friday morning. Chants of "love has won" were heard as attorneys exited the building.

Hopeful that the Supreme Court, with only a few opinions left awaiting release, would release its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges Friday, many arrived at the court early to await the news.

Alaskan Rebecca Shaffer came early Friday morning in time to see the case's namesake, Jim Obergefell, walk into the Supreme Court. In town for work, she went to the courthouse Monday and Thursday morning as opinions were being released, and again Friday, with hopes she could be present for the decision before leaving town Friday night.

"I went because it's really important to me," Shaffer said. She and her partner plan to marry, and "we didn't want to be rushed" because the court may rule against same-sex marriage in the future, she said.

As the crowd grew before the ruling was released, "everybody was talking about and texting" and watching the live feed on SCOTUSblog.com, which tracks the high court.

"Everyone was connected with a lot of other people. ... It was amazing," she said.

Soon, media interns tasked with bringing the paper releases to television crews stationed in front of the courthouse sprinted through the Supreme Court's side door, but there was "maybe a minute" where nobody knew the results of the ruling, she said. "And then this roar went through the crowd, and someone yelled, 'We won! We won!'"

"I cried. I got goose bumps," and "sang 'The Star-Spangled Banner,'" probably a bit too loudly, she said. "It was something."

Shaffer said she hasn't been online since to see how the decision has been received by those opposed to same-sex marriage, but she suspects that in Alaska, "we have a long way to go to get everybody to be in a good place about this."

Anna Prow of Takoma Park, Maryland, who married earlier this month, was one of those people.

"I was expecting this festival atmosphere, and this joy, and rich deep feeling that everybody's really celebrating," she told a reporter as a crowd shouted "U-S-A! U-S-A!" in the background. "It's one thing to have a commitment to have it between two people" recognized at state level, she said. And "now our nation recognizes it, and we're whole."

Kyle Flood ended up dropping his work and heading over to the court before the ruling's release after friends called and urged him to join. When the court issued the ruling, which first comes out on paper,

"We saw the interns come running out as fast as they could, and little pockets of cheers started erupting from the crowd, and word was spreading very rapidly," he said. "And as soon as you started hearing the little pockets of cheering, then the whole crowd erupted at once because we knew we had won. I'm shaking. I'm so happy. I'm over the moon."

Marc Lester and Suzanna Caldwell contributed to this story.

Alaska resident Rebecca Shaffer was in D.C. and captured this video of the moment the crowd outside the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court learned of the ruling.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.

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