Personal liberty has been at the heart of the promise and allure of this country since its founding. The greatness we claim and feel, though, rests on the reality that in the United States freedom is constantly protected and often expanded.
The United States Supreme Court reaffirmed that greatness with the decision recognizing the right to marry, for everyone.
As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion: "The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. No longer may this liberty be denied to them."
The decision has deep roots in Kentucky. One of the cases brought before the justices was Burke v. Beshear. In Burke, four same-sex Kentucky couples who had married legally in other states sued in federal court to have their marriages recognized here. In February 2014, U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II held for the couples who, he wrote, "in many respects ... are average, stable American families."
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Heyburn, who died in May of this year, acknowledged Kentucky's laws were "rooted in tradition," but that "cannot alone justify their infringement on individual liberties."
Attorney General Jack Conway declined to appeal Heyburn's ruling but Gov. Steve Beshear did, saying he believed the matter needed to be finally resolved. (Beshear moved quickly Friday after the decision's release, instructing county clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.)
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Kentucky's laws and similar ones in Tennessee, Ohio and Michigan. The appeal of that ruling was one of four cases the Supreme Court agreed to hear, resulting in this week's decision.
Kennedy, like Heyburn, provided a detailed analysis of law and history to support his opinion.
"The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change," he wrote. The centrality of marriage to family and society has long been recognized but legal views on who could marry and the nature of marriage have changed dramatically. For most of history marriage was defined as a single unit organized by the male, giving women little or no status. It was only in 1967 that the Court struck down state laws banning interracial marriage.
Heyburn dismissed arguments that same-sex marriage is bad for kids. "The Court fails to see how having a family could conceivably harm children."
Kennedy expanded, arguing that denying the legal, economic and cultural protections marriage offers to same-sex couples hurts their children. They "suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser," as well as "significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated to a more difficult and uncertain family life."
Opponents argued that the issue should be left to voters, not judges, to decide. Kennedy acknowledges a democratic resolution is ideal but "individuals who are harmed need not wait ... before asserting a fundamental right."
And harm there was.
As Heyburn noted, in Kentucky same-sex spouses had no legal right to sick leave to care for a sick mate, to recover benefits under workers' compensation laws if a spouse died in a workplace accident, or to collect spousal Social Security benefits. A very partial list.
The Supreme Court decision reverses those harms, honors and grants legal recognition to the hundreds of thousands of gay couples in this country who have deep and lasting bonds, are raising children, contributing to their communities and caring for each other.
They are, in fact, married.
Now they can also be married in law and their marriages will be recognized throughout this great land.