In Ireland, famous as much for its strict Catholicism as its emerald green landscape, voters went to the polls on 22 May 2015 for a referendum on a question that would have been unthinkable just twenty years earlier: Should civil same-sex marriages be legal? In a country where homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993, and divorce only became legal in 1995, it was a remarkable turnabout that polls just days ahead of the vote showed approval of same-sex marriage was set to pass by as much as a two-thirds margin. And when the final tally was announced on 23 May, the result was beyond question: Ireland had become the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote, approving the measure by 62 percent.
People involved in long-term same-sex relationships have long sought equal, or at least similar, civil and legal rights to people in opposite-sex marriages. Marriage confers a host of legal benefits, including many tax benefits as well as inheritance, community property, and social rights that are denied to people who are unable to marry. Although there has been considerable attention paid to parallel processes, such as civil unions and commitment ceremonies, only legally recognized civil marriage is generally believed to carry with it the full spectrum of rights sought by many same-sex couples.
Many people oppose same-sex marriage as an article of faith. According to Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, sex should take place only within the bonds of marriage between a man and a woman. Among other major world religious traditions, for instance Hinduism and Buddhism, the stance on homosexuality or same-sex union is vaguer. Even those without strong religious feelings can have firm opinions about same-sex marriage, often for cultural or political reasons. Some people argue that homosexual marriage would diminish the sanctity of marriage as a social, religious, and legal institution, and might also significantly increase the divorce rate. In a related issue, those who oppose same-sex marriage often hold similar views about same-sex couples raising children or adoption by gay and lesbian parents.
Although in many countries public opinion on same-sex marriage shifted quickly from disapproval to approval in recent decades, it is still illegal in most places in the world. Nineteen countries out of the approximately 190 countries in the world have legalized same-sex marriage. The first nation in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2001, was the Netherlands; Belgium followed in 2003. In 2005, Canada and Spain both enacted same-sex marriage legislation. South Africa legalized same-sex marriage in 2006, becoming the first African country to do so. Norway and Sweden legalized same-sex marriage in 2009. By May 2015, Argentina, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Portugal, the United Kingdom (UK), and Uruguay had legalized same-sex marriage.
During the early years of the twenty-first century, a parallel trend also existed. Several countries created legislation banning homosexual marriage. Honduras amended its constitution in 2005 to include wording prohibiting both same-sex marriage and adoption by lesbian and gay couples. Ugandan law prohibits the performance of homosexual marriages, assesses punishments for same-sex couples married elsewhere, and has criminalized homosexuality, incarcerating convicted homosexuals for periods up to and including life. Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine have laws that specifically define marriage as existing only between a man and a woman.
Slovenia's Parliament approved a bill in March 2015 that would grant same-sex marriage rights. Presidential approval of the bill was pending in May 2015. On 15 April 2015, Chile's President Michelle Bachelet (1951–) approved a law that gave legal recognition to same-sex civil unions. Although the law stopped short of granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples, it did grant partners the right to inherit each other's property and receive health care coverage and pension benefits on their partner's plans. Colombia and Ecuador also recognize same-sex civil unions.
In the United States, individual states are tasked with legislating civil marriage laws. Several states not permitting same-sex marriage have implemented legislation granting civil unions or domestic partnerships that confer limited rights and protections. Public opinion on same-sex marriage shifted quickly in the United States between the mid-1990s and 2015. In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) sailed through Congress with wide bipartisan support. DOMA allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages legally made in other states and prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages legally made in the couples' home states with respect to federal laws and programs. At the time, polls showed that between 70 and 75 percent of U.S. adults were against legalizing same-sex marriage.
In 2003, the commonwealth of Massachusetts brought the issue of same-sex marriage into the U.S. spotlight when its Supreme Court ruled that barring same-sex couples from civil marriage was unconstitutional. The move prompted a backlash in many states, and ballot initiatives calling for constitutional amendments defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman were circulated. Eleven states voted on such constitutional amendments in 2004, and all were passed. More followed. In early 2008, California seemed to buck this trend when its Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage; however, by the time of elections in November 2008, California citizens voted in favor of a ballot measure called Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. Several lawsuits were filed challenging the legality of the ban. Those lawsuits worked their way up the court hierarchies for several years. Eventually, a California court struck down the law and the state government decided not to defend it any longer. Supporters of Proposition 8 appealed, but in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they had no legal standing to defend the law. The Supreme Court dismissed the case and let a district court ruling overturning Proposition 8 stand.
A public opinion milestone was reached in the United States in August 2010 when a CNN poll found that a very small majority of U.S. citizens believed that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry and have their marriages recognized as legally valid. CNN said 50.5 percent of respondents favored same-sex marriage, while 47.5 percent opposed it. This was the first time a major poll showed majority support for same-sex marriage in the United States. The margin of error for the poll was 4.5 percent. Another poll, conducted by the Associated Press and the National Constitution Center in the same month, found that 52 percent of respondents felt same-sex marriages should be legally recognized.
On 23 February 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama (1961–) announced that he had determined DOMA to be unconstitutional and that his administration would no longer oppose legal challenges to the law. The administration would, however, continue to enforce the law pending a final decision on its constitutionality by the Supreme Court. On 26 June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against both DOMA and Proposition 8. In a 5–4 decision, the Court struck down a key provision of DOMA, ruling that the denial of federal benefits to gay couples violates the U.S. Constitution's promise to equal protection under law. As a result of the ruling, same-sex couples who were married under state law are entitled to equal treatment by the federal government. In another 5–4 ruling, the Proposition 8 case was rejected under procedural lines as the Court ruled that supporters of the anti-gay legislation did not have legal grounds to appeal in federal court. The result of the Supreme Court's ruling was that same-sex marriages could resume in California. The Court did not rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans in other states and did not set a federal precedent for same-sex marriage at that time.
Multiple U.S. judges at various levels ruled that gay marriage bans were unconstitutional in several different states during the spring and summer of 2014. Their rulings effectively brought the number of states where same-sex marriage was legal to thirty-seven. On 16 January 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a combined case concerning bans of same-sex marriage that had been enacted in four states. The four states in question—Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and Tennessee—had enacted same-sex marriage bans, and all four of the state laws had been struck down by lower courts. However, an appeals court later overturned those rulings, becoming the first court in recent years to uphold same-sex marriage bans.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard 150 minutes of oral arguments on the constitutionality of the four same-sex marriage bans on 28 April 2015. Questions posed by the Justices seemed to indicate the Court was divided on the issue. On 26 June 2015, in a 5–4 vote, the Court ruled that state-level same-sex marriage bans were not constitutional, meaning that same-sex marriage became legal throughout the United States. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy (1936–), who has voted with his liberal colleagues on same-sex marriage cases in the past, wrote of gay couples hoping to marry: "They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right." Dissenting justices said the majority had overreached.