Metro Weekly

SCOTUS hears marriage equality cases

Amid national debate, high court ponders whether states must recognize or can ban same-sex marriages

Supreme Court Arguments Day Same Sex
Outside the Supreme Court, April 28, 2015 – Photography by Todd Franson

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, a collection of four different cases from Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky challenging the constitutional bans on same-sex marriage in those states. Same-sex marriage advocates hope the case will resolve the issue permanently by nationally granting same-gender couples the ability to legally wed and have their marriages recognized by the state in which they live. 

Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, the fight over marriage equality continued to rage on as proponents and opponents of same-sex nuptials held dueling rallies on the steps of the court, featuring multiple speakers and activists, all passionate in defense of their respective opinions. While marriage equality advocates outnumbered opponents 10-to-1 on Tuesday as the Supreme Court justices questioned the lawyers in the marriage cases, many opponents had already previously made their disapproval known on Saturday, when the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) sponsored the annual “March for Marriage.” Thousands of people from out-of-state, mostly members of conservative religious congregations from the Greater New York area, were bussed into Washington to march in support of one-man, one-woman marriages, in keeping with their religious beliefs. Opponents numbered about 6,000 compared to fewer than 60 people standing in favor of marriage equality, or a 100-to-1 ratio in favor of the opponents. 

Inside the courtroom, the justices grappled with two major questions: whether the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex, and whether it requires a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage has been lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state. Ninety minutes was dedicated to the first question, and 60 minutes to the second. 

In broaching the first question, Mary Bonauto, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, or the pro-marriage equality advocates, stated the thesis of the argument that LBGT advocates hope the court embraces: that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to license and recognize same-sex nuptials.

“The intimate and committed relationships of same-sex couples, just like those of heterosexual couples, provide mutual support and are the foundation of family life in our society,” Bonauto said. “If a legal commitment, responsibility and protection that is marriage is off limits to gay people as a class, the stain of unworthiness that follows on individuals and families contravenes the basic constitutional commitment to equal dignity. Indeed, the abiding purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment is to preclude relegating classes of persons to second-tier status.”

In response to a question from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg about the government’s historic deference to states when it comes to defining and licensing marriages, Bonauto argued, “States do have primacy over domestic relations except that their laws must respect the constitutional rights of persons, and Windsor couldn’t have been clearer about that. And here we have a whole class of people who are denied the equal right to be able to join in this very extensive government institution that provides protection for families.”

Meanwhile, in his opening statement, John J. Bursch, the lawyer for the respondents stated the premise echoed by many of its opponents — that debate over the issue of same-sex marriage needs to continue, and that states are best positioned to determine how to define marriage. 

“This case isn’t about how to define marriage. It’s about who gets to decide that question,” Bursch said. “Is it the people acting through the democratic process, or is it the Federal courts. And we’re asking you to affirm every individual’s fundamental liberty interest in deciding the meaning of marriage.”

Be sure to check back for more coverage of this historic event.

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