October 6, 2014

What today’s Supreme Court decision means for gay marriage

Erika Turner and Jennifer Melsop become the first same-sex couple to marry in Arlington, Va. Credit: Getty Images
Erika Turner and Jennifer Melsop become the first same-sex couple to marry in Arlington, Va. Credit: Getty Images
Click to view an interactive map detailing how state policies on same-sex marriage have changed over time.

The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected requests to review lower court decisions that overturned bans on same-sex marriage in five states: Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. By denying these requests, the court effectively legalized gay marriage in these states. The lower court rulings had been on hold until the Supreme Court weighed in, but soon after the high court’s decision was made known, a number of states, including Virginia and Wisconsin, announced that gay and lesbian couples would be able to marry almost immediately.

While today’s decision settles the issue in some states, it has not ended the battle over same-sex marriage. Here is an explainer of today’s news and its possible impact.

Has the Supreme Court approved same-sex marriage across the country? No, it hasn’t. When the high court decides not to hear a case, it is possibly, but not necessarily, a sign that a majority of the justices agree with the lower court’s ruling. The court can deny petitions for it to hear a case based on other reasons, including when there is no split among the federal circuit courts of appeals, as was the case in this instance. The three federal appeals courts that have so far ruled on gay marriage bans – the 4th, 7th and 10th circuits – all agreed, saying that state bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

Beyond the five states directly impacted by today’s decision, how many states are affected? In the regions covered by the three federal appeals court circuits directly affected by today’s decision, there are six states – Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming – where same-sex marriage is still banned, but is likely to be legal soon because these states fall within the jurisdiction of courts that struck down the bans. For example, the jurisdiction of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. The same holds true in North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia, which currently ban gay marriage but fall within the jurisdiction of the 4th Circuit.

How does this affect other same-sex marriage cases pending in the courts? Many cases challenging state same-sex marriage bans in other circuits are still likely to move forward. It is unclear whether the Supreme Court’s action today will have any direct effect on the resolution of other cases challenging gay marriage bans. But the appeals court circuits that were not involved in today’s decision are not bound by it, and are free to continue to independently consider the constitutionality of state same-sex marriage bans. Currently, there are active challenges to same-sex marriage bans in every state where gay marriage is not legal.

Will the Supreme Court take another same-sex marriage case? Maybe. If one of the remaining circuits were to decide that state bans on same-sex marriage are constitutional, a split among the circuits would likely prompt the Supreme Court to take a gay marriage case. When there is disagreement among appeals court circuits, the Supreme Court usually steps in and agrees to resolve this split or disagreement among the circuits.

Does this mean same-sex couples will eventually have the constitutional right to marry? Not necessarily. It is still theoretically possible that the Supreme Court ultimately could rule against those who claim a constitutional right of same-sex marriage. Although today’s decision certainly suggests that the courts are moving toward nationwide recognition of same-sex marriage, the issue remains unresolved in roughly half of the appeals court circuits, and, at least for now, more than half of the states (26) still have gay marriage bans in effect.

Topics: Supreme Court, Gay Marriage and Homosexuality

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. MrJ.2 years ago

    Now that the supreme court gave its (not particularly America voter’s) okay for same sex marriages. Does that now allow unwed heterosexual couples to sue the government for discrimination (denial of benefits) since, Federal laws are in place allowing same sex, domestic partnership unions to get benefits equivalent to being married from their employers?

  2. Jerry Krause2 years ago

    My radical view on the U.S. Supreme Court’s passing of gay marriage nationwide is this: The smell of feces in the air shared between two men is not the sort of fragrance that can spark an offspring; motherly instincts that only a woman can behold, and fatherly instincts that only a man can behold. Two separate thoughts. The first a trespass on nature’s design; the latter designed to nourish life. I think it is not what is written on paper but having all the right ingredients that defines the true meaning of marriage.

  3. Jerry Krause2 years ago

    I agree with Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s prediction that Christians will push back against gay marriage in a similar way to Dr. Martin Luther King’s fight against racial discrimination. “They either are going to follow God, their conscience and what they truly believe is what the scripture teaches them, or they will follow civil law,” Huckabee said. “They will go the path of Dr. Martin Luther King, who in his brilliant essay the letters from a Birmingham jail reminded us, based on what St. Augustine said, that an unjust law is no law at all. And I do think that we’re going to see a lot of pastors who will have to make this tough decision,” he continued.

  4. Jerry Krause2 years ago

    Thomas joined Justices Roberts, Scalia, and Alito in his dissent to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Gay-Marriage decision, but it was Clarence’s opinion that struck the most offensive tone: “The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.”

  5. Pastor Bob2 years ago

    God forgive the supreme court and our country for this terrible decision.

  6. Sue Carnes2 years ago

    May Almighty God forgive us! He made one man for one woman.
    Will we become an obomonation in His Kindom.

  7. Clinton Duncan3 years ago

    I think it is time for equal rights!!!

  8. Jackie3 years ago

    What’s next? Without a definition of marriage then it is open to anything. I really believe that polygamy is next. Why not?

    1. MsColleen3 years ago

      Considering that polygamy is the standard in the Bible, and all arguments against Marriage Equality stem from the Bible, we can use the Bible to support polygamy.

      After all, there are only three verses in the Bible that require a man be the husband of ONLY ONE wife. 1 Tim 3:2, 1 Tim 3:12, Tit 1:6. Since I have no desire to be a Bishop, a Deacon, or “blameless,” none apply to me.

  9. Neil Flesch3 years ago

    Perhaps,the great dilemma of the Universe and all of creation might be summed up in one adaptation of a famous Shakespearean phrase: Evolve or not evolve, that is the question. The institution of marriage between two people might be synthesized, surely on a single expression: an economic relationship between two parties. Since the beginning of time these parties to the marriage concern the celebration of a legal agreement made ​​between a man and a woman.

    Men and Women have the their own values ​​(social, cultural, familial) dominant throughout the history of civilization. These same dominant values ​​are the same responsible of the generator factor of social exclusions. Generally, one can say that most of these exclusions occurred in the course of history have been based on perpetuated prejudices by predominant values in each community, with their own cultural values ​​and their respective time.

    Looking from outside this universe, apparently divided, at first sight, between issues strictly economic nature or restricted social behavior to certain groups, issues such as marriage between people of the same gender, in fact, relate more to the small universe of life between two people of the same gender out of the pattern of behavior of a majority living heterosexual marriages as proper subjects belonging to the public sphere. The latter when manifests itself in direction to the public power is in order to seek its standardization. This standardization aims to search for the balance. In the sent of not making an exception of the rule, either make the rule a tool of minorities elimination. However, is acknowledged by all that the field of wills expressed by the people in front of their authorities which have the power of standardization to affirm or deny the right of a popular claim, generally, the emotions and the immediate interests of each citizen mix too deeply into issues that require a slow process of observation, study and maturation. Divorce, for example, in many societies can be considered as a good example of what I speak.

    However, inevitably, the polarization of trends, pro and con, in the complex field of marriage between persons of the same gender often found arguments based only in superficial opinions. Many of them, instead to abide to a more detailed analysis on the formation and evolution of societies in various aspects, it holds, purposely or not, only in the pejorative aspect arising mostly mainly gay anecdotes, radical religious and loose phrases without major foundations; arising mainly from a large majority of the population alienated largely with relation to all relevant issues that are involved in this question.

    It is timely for us to recognize here, beforehand, that homosexuality has existed since the beginning of mankind.
    Still, this is not, by itself, a strong enough argument for us to recognize and affirm that the overwhelming majority of heterosexuals around the planet are wrong to protest against this kind of union of persons of the same gender.

    And on the other hand, the same way it is appropriate to recognize the urgent need for us to analyze the aspirations of an incipient homosexual population that began to mobilize, in fact, in an organized, disciplined and mature way a short time ago.
    Despite this, the homosexual union is a fact that deserves proper legal analysis.

    However, simply, we assert that after the legal seal of the legalization of marriage between persons of the same gender while we came to say that this decision simply will not affect or change, over time, the heterogeneity of family values present in a American society still full of contradictions in their core, and still struggling with difficulty, to escape the barbarism, of drugs, prostitution, social and racial discrimination, the death penalty, radicalism and religious and parochial fundamentalism, domestic violence, among many other problems still requiring a more substantial upgrade in the cultural values ​​of this nation, the expedient of trying to fit a sudden idea that we now have a sufficient level of maturity that will allow us to deal adequately with the demands of the gay population is something that can be considered, at least, hypocritical and very convenient for a minority that is not worried a bit about the rest. Even because, in fact, this is a process that is not different from the importance given in its analysis on many other fields of study. And as such requires debate, discussions of dogmas, prejudices and legal principles that are way beyond being solved in a short period of time as shown in seasons of television series.

    Honestly, I do not see any problem in the question of succession of goods between people of the same gender. Even because, the court rules on the issue of succession of property is already on the disposition of everyone for a long time. And making an upgrade, on the matter involving marriages between persons of the same gender, it would not be difficult at all, I think.

    However, can the claims by an incipient minority of same-sex couples have the same power of decision, the same rights and the same status quo that a majority of heterosexual couples?
    Can we evolve together as a society and especially in quality on the complex institution called marriage, both between people of the same gender as heterosexual people?
    It is good to say and to recognize that the basis of marriages between same-sex lies in the same kind of conservatism in some cases up to more radical, than that observed between the unions of heterosexual couples.

    Anyway, nothing new in the front of the war of sexes.

    Despite this, the great pillar of the defenders of marriage between persons of the same gender, have been so far, to a greater or lesser degree, the right to freedom and equality. Although the same defenders when asked what might be actually regarded as “freedom” in its broadest sense and rational, recognize that the good of truth, freedom and equality can also be interpreted as the “consciousness of its own limits”. In other words, in short, freedom is beautiful, but is not infinite.
    So, how we approach such a question without entering into the merit
    of curtailment of individual freedom and support, generated from
    a superficial analysis of this fact without falling to the side
    of oppression?
    Honestly, I believe that the law is not decided according to particular assessments of groups or individuals. Because often these same assessments, either by groups part of the individuals part, fits only interests of immediate relation without having biggest worries on the final result of their actions and opinions that will generate in the future in all that composes the American society.
    The law, which is an intrinsic element to the general plan of this nation, forces towards rebalancing. Naturally imposes full harmony. And after the law had taken its final decision, whether they like it or not, people should be living together and forgive each other on this subject, but in a certain time and only after a long process of maturation before they reach the issues of the laws plan. Because, after having lesion prior to the law, this will move the justice and nothing more might be done, without be cooperating for the progress of events for the best solution.

    Finally, it’s timely to recognize that the complex debate about marriage between people of the same gender, it should not create more aggravating cases in the midst of the overwhelming majority of heterosexuals of this nation. And once this matter reaches such culmination, everything possible should be done to harmonize with the conciliators or punitive acts resulted from of the final appreciation by the Supreme Court.

    For these and many other reasons, it is appropriate for us to recall that in nature, and saved the proper proportions, the law of nature conspired and worked incessantly during billions of years in favor of the separation of the gender for the evolution of the human species could reach this current stage where we all live now. The legacy of our earliest ancestors is inalienable and imprescriptible. They transcended all the difficulties imposed by the hostile environment that always surrounded them and reminded them about the transience of our mortal condition before nature. And without it we couldn’t have achieved the establishment of ourselves as a real society.

    Therefore, it is necessary that now, honestly, in our intimate, we silently ask ourselves: Should we agree or disagree, preserver or corrupt, affirm or revoke the legacy of our ancestors and the law of nature that shaped us and brought us up here?

    Neil Flesch

  10. Wayne Peterson3 years ago

    As of this evening, 32 marriage bans have fallen and four more will fall in a few days.

  11. Becky Covington3 years ago

    It means that decisions never meant to be made by the Courts are being made by activist Judges, who are usurping the power of the people and the states. 14th amendment was strictly written to protect freed slaves from southern Black Codes which denied them basic rights of citizenship. NOTHING else. Page after page of Congressional debate affirms this. Scalia correctly said in 2011 that 14th Amendment to U.S. Constitution does not apply to sex discrimination or sexual orientation cases. Professor Raoul Berger’s book (Harvard) ‘Government by Judiciary: The Transformation of the Fourteenth Amendment’ lays out the case that “due process of law” refers only to trials & judicial proceedings “in courts of justice”. It was never meant to override the Legislature. Our allowing Judicial tyranny via our foolish ‘the means justify the end’ will come back and bite EVERYONE in the butt. Even the #LGBTQ crowd.

    Polygamy will be next. Utah is pushing the envelope on that one with the fake ‘privacy’ reasoning. Oh boy. Lets let Fed Judges into our bedrooms.

    1. Christina Forbes3 years ago

      I believe you read the 14th amendment too narrowly. Here is the first section:

      All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or imunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

      While it speaks for itself, I would read that sectino to encompass all of life, liberty or property that a person could have or be entitled to and the equal protection of the laws pretty much applies to all laws.

      It is basic: states are in charge of marriage laws, but those laws must be consistent with the constitution. Judges are the “designated hitters” who in our constitutional system decide what is and isn’t constitutional.

    2. Thomas Pursley3 years ago

      Pity the poor people, like Ms. Covington, who just don’t understand the basic concept of government that the Founding Fathers established in the Constitution. They created a tripartite form of government based on a system of checks and balances between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches that allows one branch of the government to nullify the actions of either of the other two branches. The Constitution designates the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter of law in the United States. That is a fundamental precept of America’s Constitutional form of government.

      People who disagree with some court decisions whimsically rail against “activist judges.” However, those judges are merely carrying out the functions assigned to them by our Constitution.

    3. CherokkeRaine3 years ago

      As far as I see, and I am a Christ believer, Bible believing Christian; we are doomed as a nation! People need to get on their knees, and cry out in repentance, because God is getting ready to judge this nation royally! He has already started throwing pestilences at us, we started out with crazy weather, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, etc. When will we wake up and see the truth? Will it be when it is too late to call out to Jesus Christ to forgive us? Oh how far our nation has fallen since it’s inception!

      1. abolishallreligion3 years ago

        No waking up needs to be done, because there are logical, reasonable explanations for the weather activity – it’s greenhouse gasses, not gay marriage.