Civil and Human Rights

Obergefell v. Hodges

Obergefell v. Hodges, and three cases consolidated with it by the Supreme Court—Tanco v. HaslamDeBoer v. Snyder, and Bourke v. Beshear—were federal-court challenges to state laws and constitutional amendments adopted by the voters of Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan, and Kentucky that prohibited same-sex couples from marrying and/or forbid the state from recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples lawfully entered into in other states.

Case Summary

On November 6, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in an opinion written by Judge Jeffrey Sutton (and joined by Judge Deborah Cook), upheld the discriminatory marriage laws of each of those four states. Judge Martha Daughtrey dissented. With this decision, the Sixth Circuit became the first federal court of appeals since United States v. Windsor to uphold a state law denying same-sex couples the freedom to marry, creating a split among the circuits. The plaintiffs challenging these laws asked the Supreme Court to review the Sixth Circuit’s decision, and on January 16, 2015, the Court agreed to do so, consolidating all four cases for purposes of review. In Obergefell and the cases consolidated with it the Court considered two questions: (1) whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to license marriages between two people of the same sex, and (2) whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to recognize same-sex marriages legally entered into in other states.

On March 6, 2015, CAC filed an amicus curiae brief in the consolidated cases, urging the Supreme Court to reverse the Sixth Circuit’s ruling. Our brief demonstrated that in denying same-sex couples the right to marry and empowering the people of Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan, and Kentucky to impose a badge of inferiority on those couples, the Sixth Circuit “misapprehended the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection . . . and disregarded vital principles of constitutional supremacy.” As the Supreme Court has repeatedly held, “[states] cannot use the democratic process to write inequality into law or deny to minorities core aspects of liberty.” Contrary to Judge Sutton’s opinion, there is simply no “will of the majority” exception to the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of individual liberty against state infringement and its guarantee of equality under the law.

The Court heard oral argument on April 28, 2015.

On June 26, 2015, in an historic 5-4 ruling authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court held, as CAC had urged, that the Fourteenth Amendment requires marriage equality and that all states must allow same-sex couples to marry as well as recognize same-sex marriages entered into out-of-state. As the Court explained, the previous exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from the institution of marriage burdened the liberty of those couples and denied them the equal protection of the laws guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment. In so holding, the Court strongly rejected the argument whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry should be left to state voters, explaining that “fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote” and that the courts must be open to those seeking vindication of their rights.

Case Timeline

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