WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court declared Friday that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the United States, a historic culmination of decades of litigation over gay marriage and gay rights generally.
Gay and lesbian couples already could marry in 36 states and the District of Columbia. The court’s 5-4 ruling means the remaining 14 states, in the South and Midwest, will have to stop enforcing their bans on same-sex marriage.
A court in Atlanta issued marriage licenses to three same-sex couples Friday morning, soon after the decision.
Gay rights supporters cheered, danced and wept outside the court after the decision, which put an exclamation point on breathtaking changes in the nation’s social norms.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, just as he did in the court’s previous three major gay rights cases dating back to 1996. It came on the anniversary of two of those earlier decisions.
“No union is more profound than marriage,” Kennedy wrote, joined by the court’s four more liberal justices.
The stories of the people asking for the right to marry “reveal that they seek not to denigrate marriage but rather to live their lives or honor their spouses’ memory, joined by its bond,” Kennedy said.
As he read his opinion, spectators in the courtroom wiped away tears after the import of the decision became clear. One of those in the audience was James Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court fight.
Outside, Obergefell held up a photo of his late spouse, John, and said the ruling establishes that “our love is equal.” He added, “This is for you, John.”
President Barack Obama placed a congratulatory phone call to Obergefell, which he took amid a throng of reporters outside the courthouse.
Speaking a few minutes later at the White House, Obama praised the decision as “justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.” He said it was an affirmation of the principle that “all Americans are created equal.”
The four dissenting justices each filed a separate opinion explaining his views, but they all agreed that states and their voters should have been left with the power to decide who can marry.
“This court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in dissent. Roberts read a summary of his dissent from the bench, the first time he has done so in nearly 10 years as chief justice.
“If you are among the many Americans – of whatever sexual orientation – who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision,” Roberts said. “But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”
Justice Antonin Scalia said he was not concerned so much about same-sex marriage but about “this court’s threat to American democracy.” Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas also dissented.
Several religious organizations criticized the decision, and a group of pastors in Texas vowed to defy it.
Kennedy said nothing in the court’s ruling would force religions to condone, much less perform, weddings to which they object.
The ruling will not take effect immediately because the court gives the losing side roughly three weeks to ask for reconsideration. But some state officials and county clerks might follow the lead of the Fulton County, Georgia, probate court and decide there is little risk in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The cases before the court involved laws from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Those states have not allowed same-sex couples to marry within their borders and they also have refused to recognize valid marriages from elsewhere.
Just two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down part of the federal anti-gay marriage law that denied a range of government benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor formed the majority with Kennedy on Friday, the same lineup as two years ago.
The earlier decision in United States v. Windsor did not address the validity of state marriage bans, but courts across the country, with few exceptions, said its logic compelled them to invalidate state laws that prohibited gay and lesbian couples from marrying.
The number of states allowing same-sex marriage has grown rapidly. As recently as last October, just over one-third of the states permitted it.
There are an estimated 390,000 married same-sex couples in the United States, according to UCLA’s Williams Institute, which tracks the demographics of gay and lesbian Americans. Another 70,000 couples living in states that do not currently permit them to wed would get married in the next three years, the institute says. Roughly 1 million same-sex couples, married and unmarried, live together in the United States, the institute says.
The Obama administration backed the right of same-sex couples to marry. The Justice Department’s decision to stop defending the federal anti-marriage law in 2011 was an important moment for gay rights, and Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage in 2012.
The states affected by Friday’s ruling are: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, most of Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas.
Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko, Sam Hananel and Glynn Hill contributed to this report.
A look at gay marriage reaction from across US..
Some snapshots of Americans reacting to Friday’s Supreme Court ruling declaring that same-sex couples have a right to marry in all 50 states.
Customers at a Dallas comic-book store were confronted by a sign Friday warning that Red Pegasus Games & Comics might open late because the owners were “waiting at the courthouse to see if the Supreme Court is going to let us get married.”
Kenneth Denson, 38, and Gabriel Mendez, 33, have been together for 15 years.
They had a nonbinding commitment ceremony 10 years ago in Dallas, and they were legally married in 2013 in California, but they still wanted to do the same in Texas.
“We’re Texans,” Denson said. “We want to get married in Texas.”
Both wore matching gray T-shirts from their business.
Judge Ken Molberg, the administrative district judge for Dallas County, said judges would be available to do ceremonies Friday and that the county’s 72-hour waiting period after getting a license could be waived.
The judge who struck down Arkansas’ gay-marriage ban last year presided Friday over one of the state’s first same-sex weddings after the Supreme Court’s historic ruling.
Pulaski County Judge Chris Piazza married two men in a brief ceremony in his Little Rock courtroom. He said it was the only same-sex wedding he planned to conduct.
“I looked at their faces and realized how much this meant to them,” Piazza said.
The couple, Tony Chiaro, 73, and Earnie Matheson, 65, have been together 26 years. They said they sought out Piazza because of his ruling last year.
“We could have gone off and done it somewhere else ... but it meant so much to do it here,” Matheson said.
The Supreme Court’s ruling comes a little over a year after Piazza struck down a 2004 voter-approved amendment and an earlier state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
More than 500 couples were married in the week following Piazza’s ruling before it was suspended by the state Supreme Court pending a review. State justices have not issued a ruling.
Friday’s ruling was a bittersweet victory for Richard Carlbom, who led efforts to defeat a Minnesota gay marriage ban in 2012 and then legalize it in 2013 before becoming director of state campaigns for Freedom to Marry.
“I have three months to wind down my work. The organization will probably close our doors in six to 12 months,” Carlbom said. “Isn’t it wonderful when a nonprofit organization has to go out of business?”
Carlbom married in 2013 and have had to deal with uncertainty while traveling and when his husband began graduate school in Ohio, where his marriage wasn’t recognized.
“If something happens to me, he’s not my spouse in the eyes of Ohio,” he said. “I’m a 33-year-old married man whose parents would have to be called in to help make medical decisions. The court recognized that today.”
After hearing about Friday’s ruling, a Cincinnati couple immediately headed to the marriage license bureau.
Ethan Fletcher and Andrew Hickam have been engaged nearly two years, but wanted to wait in hopes same-sex marriage would become legal in Ohio.
Fletcher says after getting their license, they will begin planning an August wedding with friends and family.
Said the 31-year-old college academic adviser: “I’m just overwhelmed with joy.”
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Claudia Lauer in Little Rock contributed to this report.