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Supreme Court finds constitutional right to gay marriage

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Watch the video above for Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric’s interview with Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff at the heart of the landmark Supreme Court case that today made gay marriage legal in the United States.

The Supreme Court has found a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, striking down bans in 14 states and handing a historic victory to the gay rights movement that would have been unthinkable just 10 years ago.

Anthony Kennedy, a conservative justice who has broken with his ideological colleagues to author several decisions expanding rights for LGBT people, again sided with the court’s four liberals to strike down the state bans. The 5-4 majority ruled that preventing same-sex people from marrying violated their constitutional right to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment and that the states were unable to put forth a compelling reason to withhold that right from people.

“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage,” Kennedy wrote of same-sex couples. “Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.”

“They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” he continued. “The Constitution grants them that right.”

The United States is now just the 21st country in the world to allow same-sex marriage in every jurisdiction. 

President Barack Obama, responding publicly at the White House to Supreme Court decisions for the second consecutive day, heralded the landmark decision, stating that justices definitively “reaffirmed that all Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law.”

“Our nation was founded on a bedrock principle that we are all created equal. The project of each generation is to bridge the meaning of those founding words with the realities of changing times — a never-ending quest to ensure those words ring true for every single American. Progress on this journey often comes in small increments,” Obama said. “Sometimes there are days like this when that slow steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”

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Supporters of gay marriage and LGBT cheer outside the Supreme Court after the justices ruled that gay marriage is a constitutional right in Washington, DC. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

Obama, who did not publicly support marriage equality when he first ran for the White House in 2008, touted his endorsement for same-sex marriage in his second campaign as well as the administration’s repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2011 as markers of progress for gay rights under his watch.

Chief Justice John Roberts read a stinging dissent from the bench as Kennedy sat beside him, his hand on his chin. Roberts wrote that the decision showed “disrespect” for the democratic process and that the American people should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to accept this huge social change. “Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law,” Roberts wrote. “Stealing this issue from the people will for many cast a cloud over same-sex marriage, making a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.”

Roberts told same-sex couples they could “celebrate today’s decision,” even though he disagreed with it so strongly — but reminded them that they should not celebrate the U.S. Constitution.  

“Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits,” he wrote. “But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”

Slideshow: Supreme Court makes gay marriage the law of the land >>>

Despite Roberts’ harsh words, people in the courtroom were all smiles as they poured out onto the steps after the decision. Some wiped tears from their eyes. A teeming crowd gathered outside, chanting and celebrating.

In oral arguments last April, Kennedy expressed reservations about changing the traditional definition of marriage to include LGBT people and seemed to entertain the argument that the court should allow the American public to continue debating the relatively new concept.

“The word that keeps coming back to me in this case is millennia,” he said then, referencing the amount of time societies had considered marriage to be only between a man and a woman.

But Kennedy was swayed by the fact that hundreds of thousands of married same-sex couples already exist and that they — and their children — are being treated differently by the law when they move to a state that doesn’t recognize their union. In his majority opinion, which surely will cement his reputation as a champion for gay rights, Kennedy writes of the “urgency” of gay couples’ claims, and concludes it is wrong to allow them to be discriminated against any longer. 

It’s clear the court is deeply divided over the decision. In another, even more stinging dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that he would “rather hide his head in a bag” than join the majority opinion. He mocked the first line of the opinion (“The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.”) as sounding like the message in a fortune cookie.

The decision came just two years after the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could no longer refuse to recognize married same-sex couples who lived in the handful of states that had legalized their unions. That decision, also written by Kennedy, caused a cascade of lower court decisions striking down state same-sex marriage bans, and now 36 states allow same-sex marriage. Public opinion on gay marriage has changed at lightning speed as well: 60 percent of Americans support it, compared with just 37 percent 10 years ago.

This transformative opinion will most likely continue the trend toward greater acceptance of LGBT people around the country, as the highest court of the land has ruled that same-sex unions are legitimate and lawful everywhere.

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Supporters of gay marriage rally after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry at the Supreme Court in Washington. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Even with the landmark decision, however, support for gay marriage has been almost nonexistent among elected Republican officials, whose positions on the issue likely will not change overnight. To date, no major Republican presidential candidate has endorsed marriage equality. Many 2016 GOP candidates even struggled with the question of whether or not they would attend a gay wedding.

Despite public opposition, many Republican operatives privately have suggested that court rulings favorable to gay marriage are a blessing in disguise for GOP politicians. With the judicial system expanding gay rights, the courts have eased the burden on the legislative and executive branches, removing pressure for them to act proactively on marriage equality policy.

Statements released from 2016 presidential contenders in the moments after the decision were all summarily against the Court’s decision, but they varied widely in tone. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example, called for a Constitutional amendment to “reaffirm the ability of the states to continue to define marriage” and overwrite the Supreme Court’s ruling. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee repeatedly called the decision “judicial tyranny,” saying it “will prove to be one of the court’s most disastrous decisions.” Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, on the other hand, issued a much more tepid response.

“Guided by my faith, I believe in traditional marriage. I believe the Supreme Court should have allowed the states to make this decision. I also believe that we should love our neighbor and respect others, including those making lifetime commitments,” the statement read. “In a country as diverse as ours, good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side. It is now crucial that as a country we protect religious freedom and the right of conscience and also not discriminate.”

Though Republicans seem divided on how to actually oppose Friday’s ruling, the opinion is a big win for the Obama administration, which is already flying high after the Supreme Court batted down a potentially fatal challenge to the Affordable Care Act on Thursday. The president came out in favor of same-sex marriage in 2012.

Friday’s ruling also could have a big effect on religious institutions that have maintained their opposition to same-sex marriage. Religious schools that refuse to provide housing for same-sex couples could face lawsuits and lose their tax-exempt status, for example. (Religious clergy will not have to marry same-sex couples, however.) Some states will most likely respond to this ruling by attempting to pass legislation to exempt people who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds, such as the controversial Indiana law that passed in March.

The gay rights movement, meanwhile, will move on to employment discrimination. Activists want a federal law that forbids discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation.

Gay and lesbian couples will be able to marry immediately in the four states named in the case — Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Michigan. There may be a delay of a few days or weeks for same-sex marriage to be legal in the remaining states with bans, since lower courts will have to apply the opinion to them.

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