WASHINGTON — In a landmark 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled Friday that states cannot ban same-sex marriage, handing gay rights advocates their biggest victory yet.
The relevant cases were argued earlier this year. Attorney John Bursch, serving as Michigan's Special Assistant Attorney General, defended four states' bans on gay marriage before the Court, arguing that the case was not about how to define marriage, but rather about who gets to decide the question.
The case comes before the Supreme Court after several lower courts have overturned state bans on gay marriage. A federal appeals court had previously ruled in favor of the state bans, with Judge Jeffrey Sutton of the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals writing a majority opinion in line with the rationale that the issue should be decided through the political process, not the courts.
Fourteen couples and two widowers challenged the bans. Attorneys Mary Bonauto and Doug Hallward-Driemeier presented their case before the Court, arguing that the freedom to marry is a fundamental right for all people and should not be left to popular vote.
Three years after President Barack Obama first voiced his support for gay couples' right to marry, his administration supported the same sex couples at the Supreme Court.
"Gay and lesbian people are equal," Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. told the justices at the oral arguments earlier this year. "It is simply untenable -- untenable -- to suggest that they can be denied the right of equal participation in an institution of marriage, or that they can be required to wait until the majority decides that it is ready to treat gay and lesbian people as equals.
The same-sex couples who challenged gay marriage bans in Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio were just a few of the estimated 650,000 same-sex couples in the United States, 125,000 of whom are raising children.
The challenges included same-sex couples who wanted to marry, those who sought to have their lawful out-of-state marriage recognized, as well as those who wanted to amend a birth or death certificate with their marriage status.
The lead plaintiff in the case is Jim Obergefell who married his spouse John Arthur in 2013 months before Arthur died.
The couple, who lived in Ohio, had to travel to Maryland aboard a medical jet to get married when Arthur became gravely ill. And when Arthur died, Obergefell began to fight to be recognized as Arthur's spouse on his death certificate.
The plaintiffs from Michigan are April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, two Detroit-area nurses who are also foster parents. They took to the courts after they took in four special-needs newborns who were either abandoned or surrendered at birth, but could not jointly adopt the children because Michigan's adoption code requires that couples be married to adopt.
Sgt. Ijpe Dekoe and Thomas Kostura became plaintiffs in the gay marriage case after they moved to Tennessee from New York.
The pair had married in New York in 2011, but Dekoe's position in the Army took the couple to Tennessee, which banned gay marriage and refused to recognize gay marriages performed in other states.