A court opinion isn’t the first place most look to for linguistic beauty. But those seeking pleasant prose might want to read the Supreme Court’s majority opinion released Friday, which found that states were required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Not only will readers find an affirmation of equality and dignity for gay and lesbian citizens. They’ll find the perfect words to explain why same-sex couples have fought for so long to be granted the same right to marriage their heterosexual counterparts have long enjoyed unquestioned.
“Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillments to those who find meaning in the secular realm,” the opinion, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reads. “Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”
The court’s finding that the fundamental right to marriage extends to same-sex couples will mean equal footing for those couples under the law throughout the country.
But the battle for full acceptance of that equal footing is not yet over. The number of states that allowed same-sex couples to marry grew to 37 before Friday’s court ruling, but several of those states have sought to chip away at same-sex couples’ ability to fully enjoy marriage rights. North Carolina and Utah this year passed measures allowing government officials to refuse to perform same-sex marriages if they object on religious grounds. And religious freedom laws in a number of states provide the cover some businesses need to decline to serve gay and lesbian customers.
There’s also any number of battles to be fought in the nation’s future that might seek to broaden our current understanding of civil rights. The people carrying out those battles should take comfort in Friday’s Supreme Court ruling and its finding that the Constitution is not a static document.
“The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” the opinion reads. “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the [14th] Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.”
In his dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts chastises his fellow justices in the majority for exercising “an act of will, not legal judgment” that “has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent.”
But the five-justice majority fit its argument squarely within the bounds of the Constitution. Kennedy described in great detail how the definition of institutions in our society continually change. He argued that the U.S. Constitution can incorporate those changing definitions in order to protect citizens’ rights.
“Indeed, in interpreting the Equal Protection Clause, the Court has recognized that new insights and societal understandings can reveal unjustified inequality within our most fundamental institutions that once passed unnoticed and unchallenged,” the opinion reads.
There’s no requirement of a popular vote to rectify that if a fundamental right is in question, the justices decided.
The Supreme Court didn’t only hand a victory Friday to same-sex couples who now have the same right to marry their heterosexual counterparts have always enjoyed; it laid the groundwork for future civil rights struggles and explained why the U.S. Constitution always will be accommodating when it comes to basic rights — whether we know of them today or not.