Divided High Court legalizes same-sex marriage in U.S.

David Shepardson, and Melissa Nann Burke
  • In a 5-4 decision%2C Justice Anthony Kennedy declared the right to marry a fundamental right
  • Friday%27s ruling prompted immediate action at county clerks%27 offices in Michigan
  • Chief Justice John G. Roberts blasted the decision saying it ended the political process of acceptance
  • Michigan said it would comply with the ruling%2C but Gov. Rick Snyder offered no opinion

Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the nation Friday and set off a rush to chapels and courthouses in states, including Michigan, that had banned them.

"No longer may this liberty be denied," declared Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion for the bitterly divided 5-4 court.

"Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right," Kennedy wrote.

In the Supreme Court audience, some wept silently and wiped away tears. Others sniffled, or grabbed the hands of those sitting next to them. Among the crowd waiting outside the Supreme Court building, cheers and dancing erupted. The Gay Men's Chorus of Washington sang "The Star-Spangled Banner."

President Barack Obama called the ruling a "victory for America."

But opponents on the high court, as well as in politics and some faiths, called the decision lawless, and an affront to democracy. Some vowed to seek a constitutional amendment to overturn it.

Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee had asked the high court to uphold bans on same-sex marriage and allow the political process, not the courts, to handle major societal changes. Prior to the ruling, 36 states had legalized same-sex marriage, either through court or political actions.

Metro Detroit nurses April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse of Hazel Park were at the heart of the Michigan case, seeking to wed and adopt one another's children.

"It's been a long, hard road. We're so happy," DeBoer said Friday. Added Rowse: "This is a great day in our lives."

DeBoer and Rowse chose not to wed Friday; they say they'll be married yet this year.

The landmark ruling brings the U.S. in line with many nations. It may usher in additional sweeping changes in laws that permit discrimination against same-sex couples — and may prompt states like Michigan to consider whether gays and lesbians deserve protection from employment and other types of discrimination.

Some Michigan laws, such as those barring same-sex couples like DeBoer and Rowse from jointly adopting children, will have to be changed to reflect the Supreme Court ruling. The impact on children in gay families was repeatedly raised by Kennedy in his opinion.

"Were tragedy to befall either DeBoer or Rowse, the other would have no legal rights over the children she had not been permitted to adopt. This couple seeks relief from the continuing uncertainty their unmarried status creates in their lives," Kennedy wrote.

'Who do we think we are?

Chief Justice John G. Roberts dissented, saying the majority decision co-opted the democratic process and reversed years of tradition and precedent. "Just who do we think we are?" he wrote.

He questioned whether the ruling opens the door to polygamous marriages, and said it raises "serious questions about religious liberty."

"The fundamental right to marry does not include a right to make a state change its definition of marriage," Roberts wrote.

"Stealing this issue from the people will for many cast a cloud over same-sex marriage, making a dramatic social change that is much more difficult to accept."

Justice Antonin Scalia also weighed in, denouncing the majority opinion in harshly personal terms and calling it a judicial Putsch – a reference to a secretly plotted effort to overthrow a government. He said the court doesn't represent America because four of the justices are from New York, not one is from the middle of the country.

"A system of government that makes the people subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy," Scalia wrote.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, a pastor from Tipton, Mich., agreed. He, too, said the decision should have been left to the individual states and voters.

"Religious liberty is a central protection of the First Amendment and, as we move forward in this debate, government should not force citizens to be in a position to violate their deeply held religious beliefs," said Walberg, a Republican.

The Michigan Republican Party and several GOP presidential candidates denounced the ruling as the overreaching of an activist court.

'Shift has been quick'

The Michigan Legislature overwhelmingly voted to ban gay marriage in 1995, followed by a 2004 ballot-box referendum that amended the Constitution to clearly state that marriage was between a man and a woman.

U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman struck down the prohibition in 2014, and about 300 same-sex couples were married before an appeals court panel stepped in and blocked further marriages, pending an appeal to the high court.

Friday's ruling, which upheld Friedman's original decision, marks a remarkable shift over a few short years. Until 2001, no country or U.S. state had agreed to legalize same-sex marriage, but public acceptance of same-sex marriages in the last decade moved very fast. Gay marriage is legal in at least 17 countries and, according to public opinion polls, it is widely favored by Americans.

"America's shift has been so quick," acknowledged Obama, who didn't support gay marriage until 2012.

"This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts: When all Americans are treated as equal we are all more free."

The American Civil Liberties Union said the ruling would stand as a cornerstone of U.S. law.

"Today's decision has been 50 years in the making and will stand with Brown vs. Board of Education as one of the landmark civil rights moments of our time," said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU executive director. "Now we take the battle for full legal equality to the states, where 31 states have yet to pass any statewide LGBT non-discrimination laws. The wind is at our backs, and we are now on the cusp of achieving full legal equality for LGBT Americans across the country."

Reaction wasn't as welcoming in some of the 14 states that had been the last holdouts against same-sex marriages, creating confusion as some officials embraced the ruling and others resisted it.

In rural Alabama, the heart of the battle against gay marriage, Pike County Probate Judge Wes Allen said he would stop issuing all marriage licenses to avoid having to give them to gay couples. Allen said Alabama law gives judges the option of granting licenses, and "I have chosen not to perform that function."

Governors in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas also railed against the ruling. And clerks in some of the affected states refused to issue licenses, citing a three-week grace period allowed by the Supreme Court or forms now out of date that specify "bride" and "groom."

But by Friday afternoon, couples had received licenses in all but one of the 14 states, according to the Human Rights Campaign. In Louisiana, where Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal is running for the White House as a conservative Christian, same-sex couples were turned away.

The American Family Association criticized the decision, saying it "rejects not only thousands of years of time-honored marriage but also the rule of law in the United States. In states across the nation, voters acted through the democratic process to protect marriage and the family. Yet, courts around the country chose to disregard the will of the people in favor of political correctness and social experimentation."


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Detroit News Staff Writer Oralandar Brand-Williams and the Associated Press contributed.