Redefining marriage for the nation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to wed one another.
The 5-4 decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges reverses a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that upheld state bans of same-sex marriage in Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee. Lower courts in all four states had struck down the bans as unconstitutional.
"We are thrilled that the Supreme Court has fulfilled the promises made in the Bill of Rights so long ago," said Laura Landenwich, one of the Louisville attorneys representing the six Kentucky couples in the case.
When the decision was announced, "tears of joy overflowed," said plaintiff Paul Champion of Louisville. He and partner Randy Johnson have been together for 24 years and have four children, ranging in age from 12 to 20.
President Barack Obama called the ruling "a victory for America."
Obama said social pro gress can move slowly, "and then there are days like this, when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt."
About two hours after the decision, Gov. Steve Beshear said county clerks in Kentucky could immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
"I have instructed the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives to provide revised marriage license forms to our county clerks for immediate use, beginning today," Beshear said in a statement. "We will report additional expected policy changes in the coming days."
By midday, Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins had issued the county's first marriage license to a same-sex couple — Scott Shive and Marcus Roland — and more couples were starting to line up. Shive and Roland were married shortly afterward at the Fayette County Courthouse. Licenses were also issued in Louisville and several other counties.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for the nation's high court, concluding that the four states must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. He said marriage was a fundamental right, guaranteed under the 14th Amendment's promise of equal protection under the law.
"It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage," Kennedy wrote. "Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. 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."
In his dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that states have the right to define marriage.
"Although the policy arguments for extending marriage to same-sex couples may be compelling, the legal arguments for requiring such an extension are not," Roberts wrote. "The fundamental right to marry does not include a right to make a state change its definition of marriage. And a state's decision to maintain the meaning of marriage that has persisted in every culture throughout human history can hardly be called irrational."
In another dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the majority opinion was "lacking even a thin veneer of law."
"Buried beneath the mummeries and straining-to-be-memorable passages of the opinion is a candid and startling assertion: No matter what it was the people ratified, the 14th Amendment protects those rights that the judiciary, in its 'reasoned judgment,' thinks the 14th Amendment ought to protect," Scalia wrote.
Conservatives also reacted with dismay. The Family Foundation, which helped push through Kentucky's 2004 same-sex marriage ban, said the Supreme Court had "gone rogue from the Constitution."
"Not only does the 14th Amendment say nothing about same-sex marriage, but no one seriously believes the 14th Amendment prohibits states from defining marriage as between a man and a woman," spokesman Martin Cothran said. "Not the people who wrote it, nor the people who ratified it, nor the judges who today have rewritten it to make it mean what they want it to mean."
The Kentucky case started in July 2013, when four couples filed suit in Louisville against the state's ban on recognizing same-sex marriages that were conducted legally in another state. In February 2014, U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II ruled in favor of the same-sex couples in that case, Bourke vs. Beshear, ruling that out-of-state marriages must be recognized. Heyburn put his order on hold pending the state's appeal.
Two days later, two additional couples filed a second lawsuit, Love vs. Beshear, before Heyburn, demanding that Kentucky issue its own marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Heyburn, who died May 4, ruled that Kentucky could not infringe on the 14th Amendment's guarantee to equal protection under the law. That order also was put on hold.
"For years, many states had a tradition of segregation and even articulated reasons why it created a better, more stable society," Heyburn wrote in Bourke vs. Beshear. "Similarly, many states deprived women of their equal rights under the law, believing this to properly preserve our traditions. In time, even the most strident supporters of these views understood that they could not enforce their particular moral views to the detriment of another's constitutional rights. Here as well, sometime in the not-too-distant future, the same understanding will come to pass."
Attorney General Jack Conway, who is now running for governor, said at the time that he would not defend the state's ban on same-sex marriages, leaving Beshear to hire private attorneys to fight Heyburn's decisions at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The appeals court reversed Heyburn, upholding same-sex marriage bans in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Michigan.
Less than two weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court heard Obergefell vs. Hodges, Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate agreed that Kentucky's marriage ban violated the equal protection clause.
"Upon closer inspection, the state's interest in preserving the tradition of marriage is nothing more than a kinder way of describing the state's moral disapproval of same-sex couples," Wingate wrote in his decision, which he also put on hold pending the Supreme Court's decision.
U.S. Supreme Court officials released Friday's decision on the second anniversary of United States vs. Windsor, in which the justices struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. June 26 also is the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Lawrence vs. Texas, which struck down numerous state sodomy laws.
Since then, gay marriage has been declared legal in 37 states, reflecting a rapidly changing opinion toward a once unthinkable institution. Public opinion has been slower to change in Kentucky: The most recent Bluegrass Poll, in March, showed that 57 percent of Kentuckians opposed same-sex marriage, 33 percent favored it and 10 percent weren't sure.
Now that same-sex marriage is a guaranteed civil right in Kentucky, those attitudes are bound to change, said Landenwich, the Louisville attorney.
"I think this is going to go a long way toward acceptance," she said. "Once everyone sees that all this ruling does is create acceptance for loving relationships, I think attitudes are going to start shifting."
Allison Connelly, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, said there are more than 1,000 federal and state rights and responsibilities that could change with the decision, ranging from Social Security death benefits to state adoption rules.
"It changes everything," Connelly said.
Beshear said Friday that he had ordered all executive branch cabinets to alter any policies necessary to implement the decision.
So far, Beshear's administration has spent $195,400 defending Kentucky's ban in court. He is represented by the Ashland law firm of VanAntwerp Attorneys LP.
Those bills could get higher. With the Supreme Court decision, Kentucky could be ordered, under the rules of civil rights law, to pay the plaintiffs' legal bills.
Last year, Heyburn awarded the plaintiffs' lawyers $70,778 in attorney fees and court costs. On his own initiative, Heyburn gave those lawyers a $10,000 bonus, saying the lawyers "undertook a difficult, unpopular case and achieved remarkable success."
That award was put on hold pending the appeals.