When the Supreme Court rendered their 5-4 ruling on June 26, 2015 in the same-sex marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex which was lawfully entered into in another state. In doing so, the Court eliminated any ambiguity about the viability and legality of whether a marriage legally entered into in one state would be recognized in another. Closed was the loophole which caused some couples to have their valid marriage ignored in another state due to the state’s laws.
Obergefell bookends a volatile two years in the Federal Court system which began with the decision in United States v. Windsor which invalidated the federal definition of marriage in the Defense of Marriage Act and created, on the federal level, legal same-sex marriage for the purposes of taxes, benefits, and other federal-level issues. Less certain, at that time, was the effect it would have on the states’ own Defense of Marriage Acts since it was widely believed that marriage was a “state’s right” to define and carry out.
Pennsylvania had its own watershed moment in the decision of Whitewood v. Wolf in May 2014 when Pennsylvania’s state version of the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down. At that point, the same issues existed for Pennsylvanians as they did when the Windsor decision was issued: same-sex marriage was a right established within the state and Federally, to an extent, but beyond the confines of the Commonwealth and those other states who recognized same-sex marriages, questions remained as to their rights in the event of death, divorce, or child custody where one or both parties moved to a state which did not recognize same-sex marriage. Even with the decision of Obergefell, Pennsylvania has not revised its statutory definition of marriage and, as highlighted by Gina Passarella of The Legal Intelligencier, other issues exist which require attention, such as legal custodial rights of people who use some forms of assisted reproduction.
The primary, practical take-away from the Obergefell case is that the Supreme Court has recognized an inalienable right of two consenting adults to marry, regardless of gender. The right to marry is a profound and important right and the Supreme Court now gives the power of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution to ensure that a legal marriage in one state is a legal marriage in another state. Couples no longer need to be concerned that they cannot, for instance, make medical decisions for their incapacitated spouse because the state does not recognize their marriage.
Obergefell is a profound civil rights decision in a court docket which saw several important decisions, including a decision preserving the viability of the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”). Though the Obergefell decision closes a chapter in American jurisprudence, there will be cases and more decisions which challenge and define the impact on Obergefell in other areas, namely areas of religious liberty. Those cases will likely never touch the decision establishing marriage as a right to all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation and, effective June 26, 2015, there is no need to add the clarifying adjective/noun combination to “marriage” anymore.
Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @AaronWeemsAtty.