Obergefell v. Hodges

Studying the Obergefell v. Hodges case, or interested in learning more? We break down the summary, brief, key players, facts and outcomes for you on TestMax.

Obergefell v. Hodges Summary

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the 14 same-sex couples who sued for the validity of their marriages to be upheld across state lines. It held that laws making same-sex marriage illegal violated both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Key Players in Obergefell v. Hodges

  • 1Appellant: 14 same-sex couples and two men, including Obergefell, whose same-sex partners are deceased.
  • 2Appellee: The state of Ohio and the Director of the Ohio Department of Health, who refused to recognize Obergefell as his husband’s surviving spouse on his husband’s death certificate.

Obergefell v. Hodges Brief

The central themes of this case are gay marriage and the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Obergefell v. Hodges Facts

Obergefell, the named appellant, traveled to Maryland to marry his ailing partner who was suffering from ALS. His partner died in Ohio, the couple’s home state, shortly after they were married; but, because the laws of Ohio did not allow for same-sex marriage, Obergefell could not be listed as his partner’s surviving spouse on Obergefell’s death certificate. Obergefell sued with the co-plaintiffs to have his Maryland marriage recognized in Ohio so that his name could appear on his dead husband’s death certificate. Other co-plaintiffs sued for adoption rights as well as for the right not to have their “marriage stripped from them whenever” they moved between states.

The Obergefell v. Hodges Decision

The Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to recognize the validity of same-sex marriages performed in other states. The Court concluded that the Constitution protects personal choices as to marriage, noting the fact that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects liberties which include “intimate choices”. In that way, the Court asserted that the Due Process Clause protects liberties associated with “choices about marriage” and that the constitution protects the “right to marry”. It characterized marriage as a liberty through the way in which it provides a couple with a means of finding “other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality”. It also noted that that aspect of marriage is “true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation”.

The Court also held that the “right to marry” protects an “intimate association”—a freedom that courts such as the court in Lawrence have recognized should not be subject to criminal liability. The Court defined “intimate association” as a means of defining oneself “through commitment to” another person. It asserted that same-sex couples are just as entitled as opposite-sex couples to an “association” that “responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there”. In so doing, the Court suggested that denying the freedom of “intimate association” to same-sex couples denies them equal enjoyment of a freedom which addresses basic and universal human needs (or, within the legal framework, needs of citizens or “the people of the United States”).

The Court then described the benefits of marriage to society and to individual citizens. It described the good that marriage does for society, including and the way in which it “safeguards children and families” within a stable family structure and protects children from the potential stigma of being in a non-traditional family not solidified by a marriage. Finally, the Court outlined the benefits afforded to those who are allowed to marry—namely, “dignity”, “expression, intimacy, and spirituality”—as well as financial (e.g., tax) benefits, suggesting that those who are not offered those benefits are being denied equal protection. It noted that, because marriage is considered to be a “keystone of the…social order,” the law offers a range of other exclusive benefits to married couples. It went on to describe how “locking” same-sex couples out of such a key societal institution would be not only unfair and unequal but also “demeaning” to them. The Court cited Zablocki and Loving to highlight how, in this case, there was, likewise, a violation of the Equal Protection Clause through the burdening of “a right of ‘fundamental importance’”—the “right to marry”—and through the “un-equal treatment of…[gay and heterosexual] couples”. Based on this reasoning, the Court concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment requires that valid, out-of-state same-sex marriages must be recognized as valid by all states.

Key Takeaways for Law Students

  • 1The liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment include the right of both heterosexual and same-sex couples to marry.
  • 2“The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person”.
  • 3Valid, out-of-state same-sex marriages must be recognized as valid by all states.
  • 4Laws prohibiting gay marriage result in the unequal treatment of couples, the depriving of same-sex couples of key benefits of the institution of marriage, as well as the burdening of liberties related to marriage in ways that violate the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.