Obergefell v. Hodges

Marriage is traditionally viewed as a sacred and private matter between two parties. Although the government doesn't usually step in to make decisions about marriages, the instances where it does have been controversial and led to intense debates about expanding rights versus maintaining tradition. Obergefell v. Hodges is one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions for protecting LGBTQ rights – specifically, same-sex marriage. 

Obergefell v. Hodges Obergefell v. Hodges

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    Obergefell v. Hodges Significance

    Obergefell v. Hodges is one of the most recent landmark decisions from the Supreme Court. The case centered around the issue of same-sex marriage: whether it should be decided at the state or federal level and whether it should be legalized or banned. Before Obergefell, the decision had been left up to states, and some had passed laws legalizing same-sex marriage. However, with the 2015 Supreme Court decision, same-sex marriage was legalized in all 50 states.

    US Politics Obergefell v Hodges Obergefelle reaction to supreme court decision StudySmarterFig. 1 - James Obergefell (left), alongside his lawyer, reacts to the Supreme Court's decision at a rally on June 26, 2015. Elvert Barnes, CC-BY-SA-2.0. Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Obergefell v. Hodges Summary

    The Constitution does not define marriage. For most of US history, the traditional understanding viewed it as a state-recognized, legal union between one man and one woman. Over time, activists have challenged this definition of marriage through lawsuits while traditionalists have sought to protect it through legislation.

    LGBTQ Rights

    The civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s led to greater awareness of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) issues, especially relating to marriage. Many gay activists argued that gay marriage should be legalized to prevent discrimination. In addition to the social value that comes from a legalized marriage, there are a lot of benefits that are available only to married couples.

    Legally married couples enjoy benefits around tax breaks, health insurance, life insurance, recognition as next-of-kin for legal purposes, and reduced barriers around adoption.

    Defense of Marriage Act (1996)

    As LGTBQ activists saw some wins in the 1980s and 90s, socially conservative groups raised alarm bells about the future of marriage. They feared that the growing acceptance would eventually lead to the legalization of gay marriage, which they felt would threaten their traditional definition of marriage. Signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) set the nationwide definition for marriage as:

    a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife."

    It also asserted that no state, territory, or tribe will be required to recognize same-sex marriage.

    US Politics Obergefell v Hodges Anti-LGBTQ Anti-Same-Sex Opponent protester signStudySmarterFig. 2 - A sign at a rally outside the Supreme Court shows the fear that same-sex marriage threatens the traditional idea of family. Matt Popovich, CC-Zero. Source: Wikimedia Commons

    United States v. Windsor (2013)

    Lawsuits against DOMA rose up pretty quickly as people challenged the idea that the federal government could ban gay marriage. Some states legalized gay marriage despite the federal definition provided in DOMA. Some people looked to the case of Loving v. Virginia from 1967, in which the courts ruled that prohibiting interracial marriages violated the 14th Amendment.

    Eventually, one lawsuit rose up to the level of the Supreme Court. Two women, Edith Windsor and Thea Clara Spyer, were legally married under New York law. When Spyer passed away, Windsor inherited her estate. However, because the marriage wasn't federally recognized, Windsor wasn't eligible for the marital tax exemption and was subject to over $350,000 in taxes.

    The Supreme Court ruled that DOMA violated the Fifth Amendment's "equal protection under the law" provision and that it imposed stigma and a disadvantaged status on same-sex couples. As a result, they struck the law down, opening up the door for LGBTQ advocates to push for more protections.

    Leading up to Obergefell v. Hodges

    James Obergefell and John Arthur James were in a long-term relationship when John was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease), a terminal illness. They lived in Ohio, where same-sex marriage was not recognized, and flew to Maryland to get legally married shortly before John's death. They both wanted Obergefell to be listed on the death certificate as John's legal spouse, but Ohio refused to recognize the marriage on the death certificate. The first lawsuit, filed in 2013 against the state of Ohio, resulted in the judge requiring Ohio to recognize the marriage. Tragically, John passed away shortly after the decision.

    US Politics Obergefell v Hodges Obergefelle James Arthur marriage on plane StudySmarterFig. 3 - James and John got married on the tarmac in the Baltimore airport after flying from Cincinnati in a medical jet. James Obergefell, Source: NY Daily News

    Soon, two more plaintiffs were added: a recently widowed man whose same-sex partner had recently passed away, and a funeral director who sought clarification on whether he was permitted to list same-sex couples on death certificates. They wanted to take the lawsuit a step further by saying that not only Ohio should recognize Obergefell and James's marriage, but that Ohio's refusal to recognize lawful marriages performed in another state was unconstitutional.

    Other similar cases were happening simultaneously in other states: two in Kentucky, one in Michigan, one in Tennessee, and another one in Ohio. Some judges ruled in favor of the couples while others upheld the current law. Several of the states appealed the decision, ultimately sending it to the Supreme Court. All of the cases were consolidated under Obergefell v. Hodges.

    Obergefell v. Hodges Decision

    When it came to same-sex marriage, the courts were all over the place. Some ruled in favor while others ruled against. Ultimately, the Supreme Court had to look to the Constitution for its decision on Obergefell – specifically the Fourteenth Amendment:

    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.

    Central Questions

    The key provision that the judges looked at was the phrase "equal protection of the laws."

    The central questions that the Supreme Court considered for the Obergefell v. Hodges decision were 1) whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to license marriages between same-sex couples, and 2) whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to recognize same-sex marriage when the marriage was performed and licensed out of state.

    Obergefell v. Hodges Ruling

    On June 26, 2015 (the second anniversary of United States v. Windsor), the Supreme Court answered "yes" to the above questions, setting the precedent for the country that gay marriage is protected by the Constitution.

    Majority Opinion

    In a close decision (5 in favor, 4 against), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Constitution protecting same-sex marriage rights.

    14th Amendment

    Using the precedent set by Loving v. Virginia, the majority opinion said that the Fourteenth Amendment can be used to expand marriage rights. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy said:

    Their plea is that they do respect [the institution of marriage], 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."

    State's Rights

    One of the main arguments against the majority ruling was the issue of the federal government overstepping its bounds. The judges argued that the Constitution doesn't define marriage rights as being within the federal government's power, which means that it would automatically be a power reserved for the states. They felt that it came too close to judicial policymaking, which would be an inappropriate use of judicial authority. Additionally, the ruling could violate religious rights by taking the decision out of the states' hands and giving it to the court.

    In his dissenting opinion, Justice Roberts said:

    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... But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it."

    Obergefell v. Hodges Impact

    The decision quickly elicited strong reactions from both supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage.

    President Barack Obama quickly issued a statement supporting the decision, saying it "reaffirmed that all Americans are entitled to the equal protection of the law; that all people should be treated equally, regardless of who they are or who they love."

    US Politics Obergefell v Hodges White House pride colors supreme court decisionStudySmarterFig. 4 - The White House lit up in gay pride colors following the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision. David Sunshine, CC-BY-2.0. Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Republican leader of the House John Boener said that he was disappointed in the ruling because he felt the Supreme Court "disregarded the democratically-enacted will of millions of Americans by forcing states to redefine the institution of marriage," and that he believed marriage is a "sacred vow between one man and one woman."

    Opponents of the decision expressed concern over the impact on religious rights. Some prominent politicians have called for the decision to be overturned or for a constitutional amendment that would re-define marriage.

    In 2022, the overturning of Roe v. Wade turned the issue of abortion over to states. Since the original Roe decision was based on the 14th Amendment, it led to more calls for the overturning of Obergefell on the same grounds.

    Impact on LGBTQ Couples

    The Supreme Court's decision immediately gave same-sex couples the right to get married, no matter what state they lived in.

    LGBTQ Rights activists hailed it as a major win for civil rights and equality. Same-sex couples reported improvements in many areas of their lives as a result, especially when it came to adoption, receiving benefits in areas like healthcare and taxes, and reducing the social stigma around gay marriage. It also led to administrative changes – government forms that said "husband" and "wife," or "mother" and "father" were updated with gender-neutral language.

    Obergefell v. Hodges - Key takeaways

    • Obergefell v. Hodges is a 2015 landmark Supreme Court case that ruled that the Constitution protects same-sex marriage, thus legalizing it in all 50 states.
    • Obergefell and his husband sued Ohio in 2013 since they refused to acknowledge Obergefell as the spouse on his partner's death certificate.
    • A split in the court, along with several other similar cases that were consolidated under Obergefell v. Hodges, triggered a Supreme Court review of the case.
    • In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution protects same-sex marriage under the Fourteenth Amendment.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Obergefell v. Hodges

    What is the summary of the Obergefell V Hodges?

    Obergefell and his husband Arthur sued Ohio because the state refused to acknowledge the marriage status on Arthur's death certificate. The case consolidated several other similar cases and went to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled that same-sex marriages must be recognized.

    What did the Supreme Court determine in Obergefell V Hodges?

    The Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment applies to same-sex marriage and that same-sex marriage must be recognized in all 50 states. 

    Why is Obergefell v. Hodges important?

    It was the first case where same-sex marriage was determined to be protected by the Constitution and thus legalized in all 50 states. 

    What was so significant about the U.S. Supreme Court case Obergefell V Hodges?

    It was the first case where same-sex marriage was determined to be protected by the Constitution and thus legalized in all 50 states. 

    What was the ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges?

    The Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment applies to same-sex marriage and that same-sex marriage must be recognized in all 50 states. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Obergefell v. Hodges centres around the issue of

    The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) said that the definition of marriage was

    In United States v. Windsor (2013), the court overturned what law?

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