Same-sex marriage has long been a topic of controversy in the United States, where legislation regarding the rights of lesbian and gay couples to marry was left up to the individual states for many years. Some states legalized gay marriages, while others banned same-sex unions. However, this all changed following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. On 26 June 2015, in a 5–4 vote, the Court ruled that state-level same-sex marriage bans were unconstitutional, meaning that same-sex marriage became legal throughout the United States.
People involved in long-term same-sex relationships had 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 certain tax benefits, and inheritance, community property, and social rights that are denied to people who are unable to marry. Although considerable attention has been 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 unions is more vague. 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 diminishes the sanctity of marriage as a social, religious, and legal institution, and may 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 from disapproval to approval in recent decades, it is still illegal in most places in the world. Twenty-two 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 became the first African country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2006. Norway and Sweden legalized same-sex marriage in 2009. On 22 May 2015, Ireland, a nation with a history of strict Catholicism, became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote, with citizens approving the measure by 62 percent. By June 2015, Argentina, Brazil, Denmark, England/Wales, Finland, France, Greenland, Iceland, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Portugal, Scotland, the United States, 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 gay 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 marriages between gay and lesbian individuals, assesses punishments for same-sex couples married elsewhere, and has criminalized homosexuality, incarcerating convicted gay people for periods up to 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. Opponents of the bill petitioned for a referendum, which was blocked by Parliament. However, the opposition appealed to the Constitutional Court, which had yet to render a decision on the matter as of June 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 were originally tasked with enacting laws regarding same-sex marriage. Several states that did not permit same-sex marriage implemented legislation granting civil unions or domestic partnerships that conferred limited rights and protections. Public opinion on same-sex marriage shifted dramatically 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 and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton (1946–). 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 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial 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's 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 were 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 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—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. Almost two months later, on 26 June 2015, the Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry and requires that all states recognize marriages between two people of the same sex. 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.
Although a CNN/ORC poll at the end of June 2015 showed that 59 percent of respondents supported the Supreme Court's decision, there were still challenges to same-sex marriage in several states. In July 2015, a gay couple in Texas filed a federal lawsuit against a county clerk after being turned away several times when applying for a marriage license. The license was eventually procured after the lawsuit was filed. In addition, several county clerks in Kentucky refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because doing so went against their religious beliefs. Kentucky's Governor, Steve Beshear (1944–), told one such employee that he had sworn to uphold the Constitution when he took office and that he should resign if he was not willing to do so.
Most of the U.S. territories accepted the change in the law without hesitation, but others were not as quick to obey the Supreme Court's decision. As of early July 2015, Talauega Eleasalo Ale, Attorney General of American Samoa, told the Associated Press that he was still reviewing the law to determine its relevance to the territory.
Kim Davis, one of the Kentucky clerks who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, was held in contempt of court and jailed on 3 September 2015. Davis refused to comply with Governor Beshear's orders in July, and denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She took her case to a federal court, which rejected her argument that she should be excused from her duty to provide same-sex marriage licenses on religious grounds. Davis's lawyers made an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on 28 August. The Supreme Court turned her request away without comment on 31 August. Davis returned to work on 14 September, saying she would not authorize marriage licenses for same-sex couples, but would not prevent her staff from doing so.
An Australian Senate committee released a report on 16 September urging Parliament to introduce a bill legalizing same-sex marriage without delay. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott (1957–) had proposed a plebiscite, or direct public vote, on the issue. However, the Senate committee concluded that an act of Parliament would be the most expedient way to enact the change in the country's marriage law. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (1954–), who assumed office on 15 September, is a supporter of legalizing same-sex marriage.
After the U.S. Supreme Court's June ruling, some judges in Alabama invoked a 1961 state law in order to avoid issuing same-sex marriage licenses by refusing to issue marriage licenses at all. The Civil Rights–era law changed the wording of a provision of state law to read that probate judges "may" issue marriage licenses instead of "shall" issue marriage licenses. Judges in at least nine of Alabama's sixty-seven counties stopped issuing marriage licenses in order to avoid giving licenses to same-sex couples. It is not known what the motivations were for the legal change in 1961, though the era saw many laws enacted that were meant to hinder racial integration.