Big day today for marriage equality. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the four consolidated cases from the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Sixth Circuit. Right now, 36 states plus the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages. And the Court could grant marriage equality nationwide when it publishes its opinion in June.
As the notable mantra states, you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. Many people have sacrificed a lot to shift the tide from staunch discrimination to full equality. So at this possible tipping point, I want to highlight some important cases that have paved the way for this moment.
Baker v. Nelson – Oct. 10, 1972: The first same-sex marriage case to make it to the Supreme Court came out of Minnesota when Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell sued the Hennepin County District Court Clerk Gerald Nelson for refusing to grant them a marriage license because they were the same sex. Baker and McConnell argued that they had the fundamental right to marry under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th amendment. The Court dismissed the case “for want of a substantial federal question,” in a one-sentence order.
Baehr v. Lewin – May 5, 1993: The issue made its way back to the forefront when three same-sex couples in Hawaii – Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, Tammy Rodrigues and Antoinette Pregil, and Pat Lagon and Joseph Melilio – appealed a lower court’s dismissal of their law suit against the Director of the Department of Health John C. Lewin. The circuit court held that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. However, The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that the lower court erroneously dismissed the suit because it did not appear “beyond doubt that the plaintiffs cannot prove any set of facts in support of their claim that would entitle them to seek relief[.]” Of note here is that the court did not decide the merits of the case, just the fact that it could proceed on its merits. The State had to prove that it had a compelling interest to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.
DOMA – Sept. 21, 1996: The Hawaii decision, despite not being final, caused a backlash throughout the nation, the biggest of which was President Bill Clinton signing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The law would deny federal benefits to married same-sex couples.
Baehr v. Miike (Baehr v. Lewin Part 2) – Dec. 3, 1996: Judge Kevin S.C. Chang in Hawaii did not find that the state had compelling reasons to deny same-sex couples marriage rights and thus held that denying marriage license to the plaintiffs was unconstitutional. Chang later stayed his ruling pending appeal.
Hawaii’s Constitutional Amendment: Nov. 3, 1998: The backlash of the Baehr case continued resulting in Hawaii voters approving a constitutional amendment allowing the state to “reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples.”
Baker v. Vermont – December 20, 1999: The Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the Vermont Constitution entitles same-sex couples to “the same benefits and protections afforded by Vermont Law to married opposite-sex couples.” However, instead of allowing the three couples in the suit – Stan Baker and Peter Harrigan, Holly Puterbaugh and Lois Farnham, Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles – to marry, the court left it to the legislature to come up with its own solution. That order resulted in the first civil unions for same-sex couples on July 1, 2000.
Goodridge v. Department of Public Health – Nov. 18, 2003: The same lawyers from Baker v. Vermont, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), also brought a suit in Massachusetts on behalf of seven couples who were denied marriage licenses. The Massachusetts Supreme Court held that “the Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all people.” And with that decision, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.
In re: Marriage Cases – May 15, 2008: After the California legislature unsuccessfully tried to pass bills allowing same-sex marriage in 2005 and 2007 (both were vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), the California Supreme Court, when hearing six consolidated cases, struck down state laws banning same-sex marriages because they violated the state constitution. Gay couples began marrying a month later. However, in October of 2008, the citizens of California voted to approve Proposition 8, by a 52.47% to 47.53% majority, that amended the state constitution to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples.
Gill v. Office of Personnel Management – July 8, 2010: From May 2008 through July of 2010, same-sex marriage became legal through court rulings in Connecticut and Iowa and through legislation in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and D.C. (although the law was later overturned by Maine voters). With marriage equality gaining momentum, on July 8th, 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro in Massachusetts held that section 3 of DOMA, the section that defines marriage between and man and a woman, was unconstitutional. He was the first federal judge to do so.
Perry v. Schwarzenegger – Aug. 4, 2010: Federal District Court Judge Vaughn Walker declares California’s Proposition 8 unconstitutional. This was the first time a state law was found unconstitutional in a federal court. While the appeal was pending U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says the Obama administration will no longer defend the DOMA. On February 7, 2012 a federal appeals court upheld Walker’s ruling.
Windsor v. United States – June 6, 2012: In the following months, federal courts in California, New England, and New York held that section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional. The latter case being Windsor v. United States. which was upheld on appeal on October 18th 2012. On December 7, 2012 the Supreme Court agrees to hear both Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry, another case that ruled Proposition 8 was unconstitutional.
Perry and Windsor in the Supreme Court – June 26, 2013: The Supreme Court struck down section 3 of DOMA in Windsor and dismissed the challenge to the Proposition 8 ruling on standing grounds in Perry, making same-sex marriage legal once again in California. This ruling opened the floodgates for marriage equality in state and district court cases, propelling the legalization of same-sex marriage in New Jersey, Hawaii, Illinois, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma, Utah, and Virginia. District Court Judges for both Kentucky and Tennessee held that those states must recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
Supreme Court Refuses to hear Marriage Appeals – Oct. 6, 2014: At this point, same-sex marriage had become legal in 19 states either through legislation, state court or district court rulings. All of the district court cases were upheld by different appellate courts, and they were appealed to the Supreme Court. However, the Court refused to hear the appeals presumably because no disagreement existed among the appellate courts. Because of the jurisdiction of the appellate court judgments, the amount of states allowing same-sex marriage jumped from 19 to 30.
6th Circuit Upholds Marriage Ban – Nov. 6, 2014: TheU.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit became the only federal appellate court to uphold same-sex marriage bans. The bans were from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. The cases were later appealed to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Marriage Cases – Jan. 16, 2015: The Supreme Court agreed to hear six consolidated cases from all four states where same-sex marriage bans were upheld in November – Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
Obergefell v. Hodges – TBD: And here we are. The lead plaintiff in the case, Jim Obergefell, and his husband, John Arthur, were legally married in Maryland, but their marriage was not recognized in the state of Ohio where they lived. When John later died of ALS, Jim was not listed as a spouse on Arthur’s death certificate. Jim filed the lawsuit to be recognized as John’s spouse and won. However, the state appealed. Jim, along with another widower, and 12 couples now find themselves at the center of a case that could decide marriage rights for all same-sex couples.
Hopefully this timeline reminds you of the people involved in these cases and the real-life repercussions that these decisions have. I couldn’t hit all of the important cases, so if you would like some more insight on others, check out the interactive timeline at Freedom to Marry. You can also find more of my analysis on recent marriage equality cases on the the GLBTQ tab on my blog.