In Case Watched by Educators, Supreme Court Backs Right to Same-Sex Marriage

By Mark Walsh — June 26, 2015 4 min read
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In a case being watched closely by educators, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday declared a U.S. constitutional right for same-sex couples to have their marriages recognized by the states.

Writing for the 5-4 majority in Obergefell v. Hodges (Case No. 14-556), Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the institution of marriage “safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education.”

“Hundreds of thousands of children are presently being raised by” same-sex couples, Kennedy said. “Most states have allowed gays and lesbians to adopt, either as individuals or as couples, and many adopted and foster children have same-sex parents. This provides powerful confirmation from the law itself that gays and lesbians can create loving, supportive families.”

“It demeans gays and lesbians for the state to lock them out of a central institution of the nation’s society,” Kennedy said. “Same-sex couples, too, may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage and seek fulfillment in its highest meaning.”

Kennedy was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. read part of his main dissent from the bench, the first time he had done so in his nearly 10 years on the court.

“Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us,” Roberts said. “Although the policy arguments for extending marriage to same-sex couples may be compelling, the legal arguments for requiring such an extension are not. The fundamental right to marry does not include a right to make a state change its definition of marriage.”

His dissent was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who also filed dissents of their own.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. filed a separate dissent, joined by Scalia and Thomas, expressing concern about whether those who continue to oppose same-sex marriage will still see their “rights of conscience” recognized.

“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,” Alito said.

Cases From Four States

The case was a consolidation of multiple suits from four states—Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee—whose prohibitions on same-sex marriage had been struck down in federal district courts but revived by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati.

Among the gay couples involved in the suits were one in which one partner is a school counselor and parent in Louisville, Ky., and others who are parents of school-age children. Some are seeking to marry so they can fully adopt all the children in their households. (See my preview story here. Karla Scoon Reid wrote about the demographic picture of same-sex couples with children here.)

The debate over gay marriage holds various implications for the nation’s schools, including in the areas of employee benefits, parental rights of access, and the effect on school atmosphere for gay youths.

Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented some of the couples, said in a statement: “Today’s decision has been 50 years in the making and will stand with Brown v. Board of Education as one of the landmark civil rights moments of our time.”

Two of the ACLU’s clients in the Kentucky case, partners Michael De Leon and Gregory Bourke, were in the courtroom Friday with their son, Isaiah, and daughter Isabella, both of high school age.

“I was flabbergasted,” said De Leon. “It was a really good feeling.”

Bourke said that Roberts’s oral dissent “took a little wind out of the sails.”

“The chief justice, with all due respect, does not understand what it’s like for gay people in Kentucky,” Bourke added. He was more inspired by Kennedy’s discussion of the importance of recognizing same-sex marriages for the children in such households.

“Really, our motivation has been for our children all along,” said Bourke.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in favor of a right to same-sex marriage, said in a statement: “We know that today’s ruling will make a tremendous difference both to the dignity and personal and economic well-being of same-sex families and to the dignity and personal well-being of their children as well as others who have been bullied and fearful due to their sexual identity.”

Brian S. Brown, the president of the National Association for Marriage, a group that supports traditional, opposite-sex marriage, had this to say in a statement: “Though expected, today’s decision is completely illegitimate. ... It is a lawless ruling that contravenes the decisions of over 50 million voters and their elected representatives.”

Image: From left, parent Michael De Leon; son Isaiah, 17; parent Gregory Bourke; and daughter Isabella, 16.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.