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What you need to know about the Supreme Court’s big gay-marriage case

This is going to be historic, no matter which way it goes.


JC Sevcik


Today, the Supreme Court of the United States of America will begin hearing oral arguments in what will likely become a landmark case on same-sex marriage.

Which way SCOTUS rules will determine whether marriage will remain between a man and a woman, as some say God intended, or if any two adults who love each other can legally, domestically, and financially intertwine with one another for life (or at least as long as it takes to get sick of each other’s crap). 

Here’s everything you need to know about the historic case. 

Where are we right now on the issue? 

In a messy spot.

Because states have different laws, there has been a bitter legal fight between proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage, with each trying to define what “marriage” means in America. The loose blue left wants absolutely any two people of age to be able to be able to tie the knot. The righteous reds think only a guy and a girl should be allowed to pay huge legal fees for attorneys to fight over each other’s ikea furniture and 401Ks. 

A polarizing political issue that’s seen both sides fight fiercely over their opposing ideologies, same-sex marriage was first legalized at the state level on May 17, 2004, in the state of Massachusetts. 

It wasn’t until 2012 that a sitting president (you’ve probably heard of him) declared support for legalizing gay marriage. That same year, Maine, Maryland, and Washington became the first states to enshrine marriage equality through a popular vote (rather than the courts). 

Momentum for the marriage equality movement built, and in recent years, liberals have been gaining big ground over conservatives and the Christian right. Today, 38 states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex unions on some level, and marriage has been legalized statewide in 35 states

What case is SCOTUS hearing? 

It’s called Obergefell v. Hodges, and stands to enter the halls of history alongside Plessy v. Ferguson, Roe v. Wade, and any of these crazy case names.

Obergefell v. Hodges is not just one case but rather the name for a collection of four same-sex marriage case from Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan, and Kentucky (where doing it with a duck is cool, if, you know, that’s your thing, or whatever). The cases are all being heard by the high court after slowly working their way up through the lengthy appeals process from the local and state to the federal level, which trickles up about as fast as economics trickle down. 

During Tuesday’s proceedings, SCOTUS will begin to hear oral arguments in Obergefell. The justices will then interpret whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires all states to license same-sex marriages and/or recognize the marriages of same-sex couples lawfully wed in other states. That part will take a while, however, with a decision not expected until around June.

When will this whole ordeal be decided?

SCOTUS’ ruling, whatever they decide, is destined to be an historic one.

There’s already been tension in the capital, with protesters on both sides showing strong turn out to support their personal stance on other people’s intimate affairs by shouting over each other. 

“I don’t pay attention to the protesters who think I’m less than human and think I deserve less than they do,” Jim Obergefell, the guy who helped start this whole thing, said to the Cincinnati Enquirer. “It’s America. They have the right to their opinions, but they don’t have the right to deny me my civil rights.” 

To do justice to the divisive debate and allow both sides adequate time to tease out the—*hack, cough*—complex nature of the issue, SCOTUS has reportedly set aside two and a half hours to hear oral arguments on same-sex marriage Tuesday. That’s an hour and a half longer than normal and two hours and twenty eight minutes longer than it will take to watch this video from the ACLU, Supercut: Pop Culture’s Journey Toward Marriage Equality.

After the oral arguments, which begin at 10 a.m. according to SCOTUSblog, the justices will deliberate. You can livestream the blog to follow along with todays momentous proceedings. 

What happens after they decide?

Once the panel of nine grown-ups who get to walk around in robes all day and have to tell other adults how to behave without laughing decide who can say I do, same-sex marriage will either: 

A) become a constitutional right, meaning the right to marry a member of the same sex would become a constitutionally protected federal law, which the states can no longer deny, limit, or legislate against; 

B) not be ruled a constitutional right, leaving the matter up to the states. If that happens, we’ll likely see legislative battles waged across the country over states’ differing definitions and interpretations of marriage and the varying reciprocity policies on acknowledging and honoring lawfully performed out-of-state same-sex marriages. 

C) become a vague, dissatisfying gray area. The court could split the difference by not legalizing gay marriage at the federal level while still requiring all states to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriage licenses— a middle ground that analysts think is unlikely. 

What do the people who know about this stuff think the outcome of the ruling will be?  

The general consensus among legal scholars and courtroom watchers is that SCOTUS is likely to find in favor of same-sex marriage. 

For example, Duke University Law School professor of law and political science Neil Siegel said the Supreme Court probably would have weighed in sooner if they planned to strike down same-sex marriage. 

“If they were going to uphold state bans, they wouldn’t have let it go this far. Because the court declined to get involved earlier, you have many more same-sex couples that have lawfully been able to marry, and the court allowed that,” he told the Hill, adding, “I don’t think they are going to say, just kidding, or throw the country a curve ball now.” 

Photo via Abhishek Jacob/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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