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Today the U.S. Supreme Court changed the face of marriage in America. In a historic ruling, the justices declared that marriage is a fundamental, constitutional right, not just for opposite-sex couples, but for same-sex couples too. The court, however, was closely and bitterly divided. NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, takes us inside the court's warring opinions.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: As just as Anthony Kennedy began to read from his opinion for the Court this morning, many of the lawyers in the chamber - men and women who've litigated gay rights cases for decades - began to weep. In the seats reserved for the public, there were tears too, especially from Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the case whose name will forever be synonymous with the right to marry for gay couples. Because gay marriage is outlawed in Ohio, he and his dying partner flew by medical charter to Maryland to marry in 2013 only to find upon their return that the state would not recognize Obergefell as the surviving spouse. They sued the state to win that recognition, and though Obergefell's husband, John Arthur, died three months later, the lawsuit lived on all the way to the Supreme Court today when Justice Kennedy announced the decision.
JIM OBERGEFELL: He got a couple sentences into it and I just started to cry because what I was hearing from him was John and I mattered. We exist.
TOTENBERG: Writing for the five-member Court majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, the right to marry for all couples, whether gay or straight, is fundamental and grounded in the clauses of the Constitution that protect liberty and guarantee equal protection of the law. No union is more profound than marriage, he said, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were. Kennedy acknowledged that for millennia, marriage was between a man and a woman, and he noted that the notion of same-sex marriage has flowered only in recent decades. Indeed, he observed, for much of our history, homosexual relationships were condemned as immoral, even criminalized, and same-sex couples had to keep, quote, "what was in their hearts unspoken." But the past does not portend the future, he said. The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own time, and the writers of the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment knew that so they entrusted to future generations, he said, a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. In that vein, he observed repeatedly, it wasn't until 1967 that the Supreme Court struck down state bans on interracial marriage, and in the same vein, that the court today struck down bans on same-sex marriage. The court now holds, said Kennedy, that same-sex couples may now marry in all states.
In his first oral dissent from the bench since becoming chief justice 10 years ago, John Roberts castigated the majority for short-circuiting the democratic process. From the dawn of human history, he said, marriage was defined as between a man and woman, but today five lawyers have redefined it. Just who do they think they are? He asked. This is a court, not a legislature. We have the power to say what the law is, not what it should be. There will be consequences to shutting down the political process on an issue of such profound public significance, he said. Closing debate tends to close minds. People denied a voice are less likely to accept the ruling.
Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito also filed dissents. Scalia called the decision a judicial putsch. Thomas said that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government - slaves did not lose their dignity because the government allowed them to be enslaved. And Alito seemed to doubt the majority's assurance that people who still believe same-sex marriage to be wrong will be able to carry out those beliefs in their churches and temples. Rather, he said, I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be labeled bigots and will be able to whisper their thoughts only in the recesses of their homes.
But the four dissenters did not carry the day, and those who were celebrating the majority decision were anything but whispering.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) And the home of the brave.
TOTENBERG: On the steps of the Supreme Court outside, the reaction was immediate. Singing, chanting, glee. And for Jim Obergefell, a call from the president.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BARACK OBAMA: Congratulations.
OBERGEFELL: Thank you so much, sir. I think it was your wishes? (Laughter).
TOTENBERG: In practical terms, today's ruling means that within days or weeks, same-sex marriage should be legal in every state in the nation. In Alabama, where the state supreme court chief justice, Roy Moore, and then the state court itself barred local officials from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, there was resignation - but angry resignation. Chief Justice Moore.
ROY MOORE: This is an aberration of centuries of law in Western civilization and in our country since the United States Constitution was adopted. What will happen after that is up to the states and up to the executive branch, whether they're going to abide by it.
TOTENBERG: But Yale Law professor Bill Eskridge says the states have no choice.
BILL ESKRIDGE: No states can now refuse to issue same-sex couples marriage licenses, and moreover, that states also have got to recognize out-of-state valid same-sex marriages just as they would valid different sex marriages. So that is very sweeping.
TOTENBERG: Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said the court is ignoring reality and plunging itself back into a Roe v. Wade quagmire.
TONY PERKINS: Just as we saw in 1973 on the abortion issue, the court said they were going to solve that issue once and for all. You know, 42 years later, they have not solved that issue. It's an issue in every election from president on down, and this will be too.
TOTENBERG: Perkins said that for evangelicals, marriage between a man and woman is a non-negotiable article of faith. And he accused gay rights advocate of constantly moving the boundaries and driving out of business vendors who, as a matter faith, do not accept same-sex marriage.
PERKINS: There's been kind of a bait and switch. There's talk about, oh, we just want to, you know, to be able to marry someone we love. Well, it's become much bigger than that. I think there will be resistance to giving any further legal instruments to bludgeon those who have objections.
TOTENBERG: Gay rights advocates indeed said they have more battles to fight. Only 28 states have laws banning discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and other spheres. Matt McTighe is campaign director for Freedom for All Americans, a new organization formed to push for non-discrimination laws. To get protection for everyone, he says, there will have to be a federal anti-discrimination law.
MATT MCTIGHE: The only way that we really can get a truly comprehensive protection is with an act of Congress, but we know that, like marriage, it's probably going to have to come through sort of hard-fought, incremental victories, winning state by state, or even municipality by municipality.
TOTENBERG: But Margaret Marshall, who, as chief justice of Massachusetts supreme judicial court in 2003, for the first time ruled that same-sex couples have a right to marry, says that marriage is special, not only is it a public commitment between two people, but the state confers unmarried couples an endless array of benefits.
MARGARET MARSHALL: Tax benefits and Social Security benefits and disability benefits and retirement benefits - our Constitution says you cannot give those benefits to one group of people and deny them to another.
TOTENBERG: Today's decision came just two years after the same 5-4 majority struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and set the stage for today's historic ruling. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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