In three majority opinions spanning 12 years, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy gave dignity to the lives of lesbians and gay men. His rulings respected their struggle for full inclusion in the American Dream and opened its doors to them. And with each successive decision, Kennedy presented the aspirations of gay and lesbian Americans not as a claim to special rights, but to equal rights.
Even more remarkable is when those decisions were handed down. Lawrence v. Texas, which threw out sodomy laws that criminalized consensual homosexual relations, was decided on June 26, 2003. United States v. Windsor, which invalidated the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, was decided on June 26, 2013. When that ruling was handed down, same-sex marriage was deemed legal in just 12 states and the District of Columbia. That number stood at 37 the morning of June 26, 2015. At 10:01 a.m., marriage equality swept from sea to shining sea.
In his 28-page majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, Kennedy made our nation more whole, more free, more equal, more just.
The challenged laws burden the liberty of same-sex couples, and they abridge central precepts of equality. The marriage laws at issue are in essence unequal: Same-sex couples are denied benefits afforded opposite-sex couples and are barred from exercising a fundamental right. Especially against a long history of disapproval of their relationships, this denial works a grave and continuing harm, serving to disrespect and subordinate gays and lesbians. (Pg. 4)
It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the Nation’s society. Same-sex couples, too, may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage and seek fulfillment in its highest meaning. (Pg. 17)
The right to marry is fundamental as a matter of history and tradition, but rights come not from ancient sources…alone. They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era. Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here. But when that sincere, personal opposition becomes enacted law and public policy, the necessary consequence is to put the imprimatur of the State itself on an exclusion that soon demeans or stigmatizes those whose own liberty is then denied. Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right. (Pg. 18-19)
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. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. 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. (Pg. 28)
Those words are an exclamation point on the joy rippling across the nation. The Supreme Court caught up with a nation that has signaled for years that it supported the right of same-sex couples to marry. A nation that has witnessed a breathtaking and positive sea change in its overall support for the equal protection under the law of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans. This is not the United States that saw the FBI launch a “sex deviates” program (1951-1978) to rid the federal government of gay people. This is not the United States that saw a federal official declare gay men “uniquely nasty.” Thank God.
But work remains to be done. Same-sex couples in 28 states can marry on Sunday and lose their jobs, homes and children on Monday. The Supreme Court decision doesn’t address that. Eliminating the sting of discrimination for LGBT Americans is the next fight. A fight made more possible to win thanks to today’s landmark ruling. Thanks to Justice Kennedy.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj