Obergefell v. Hodges

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13580

The 14th Amendment has been used often by the Supreme Court to expand the rights of citizens, including in this landmark 2015 case. What might this mean for the future of the court?


Civics, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start
  • If the Constitution doesn't say anything about a given topic, does the U.S. Supreme Court have the authority to decide anything about it?

Justice Antonin Scalia, who thought this was an example of the court overstepping its bounds, stated:

A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.

Antonin Scalia, 2013

Image from the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

  • Does the federal government have the authority to say what constitutes marriage?

This was the major issue in the 2015 Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges.

For originalists, like Justice Antonin Scalia, the answer was clear. Because marriage is not defined or even mentioned in the Constitution, Scalia believed the question of who could marry should be left up to the individual states.

Jim Obergefell, however, believed there was legal precedent that gave the Supreme Court the authority to rule on the marriage question.

Jim Obergefell

Obergefell, 2015

Image by Elvert Barner, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Jim Obergefell wanted to marry his life partner, John Arthur.

  • After 20 years together, why was it so important to get married?

Couples who are legally married receive certain benefits that life partners do not. Read What's Love Got To Do With It? The Financial Benefits of Marriage, by Lisen Stromberg for Money Under 30, to learn about some.

Married couples can also receive tax benefits and family insurance rates. These perks are on top of the stability that marriage often brings to a relationship.

For Obergefell, however, the reason was much more bittersweet. Arthur, who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, was nearing death, and Obergefell wanted to be listed on the death certificate as the surviving spouse.

So in 2013, the two men flew from their home in Ohio, a state that did not allow same-sex couples to marry, to Maryland and got married. Because Maryland issued them a marriage license, they expected Ohio to recognize their marriage when they returned home.

However, Ohio did not recognize the marriage.

  • Did Ohio have to recognize the marriage license of another state?

This was the question behind Obergefell v. Hodges. Because it went beyond the borders of a single state, the Supreme Court had to ultimately decide the fate of this lawsuit.

  • What justification did Obergefell use in his claim that he deserved to have his marriage license recognized?

14th Amendment

14th Amendment

The 14th Amendment was created after the Civil War specifically to give African-Americans the same rights as other American citizens.

Section 1 of the amendment states (Cornell Law School):

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Referred to as The Equal Protection Clause, this provision has been used repeatedly over the years to expand the constitutional rights of people beyond what is explicitly written in the Constitution.

Obergefell argued that Ohio's law preventing him from marrying denied him the financial and ceremonial benefits of marriage and, therefore, abridged his privileges as a citizen of the United States.

  • Should he be barred from these benefits because he was homosexual?

This is the question the court had to answer.

Loving v. Virginia

Jeter and Loving, 1967

Image by the New York Times, via Wikimedia Commons, qualifies as fair use.

The 1967 court case Loving v. Virginia was the primary piece of precedent used to strengthen Obergefell's argument.

To see how it applied to his case, watch How Loving v. Virginia Led to Legalized Interracial Marriage | History:

Image - Video

  • What was used to justify requiring states to recognize marriage licenses of interracial couples as legitimate?

It was argued that, based on the 14th Amendment's clause, the African-American woman was being denied the same rights as other U.S. citizens expressly because of her race.

Chief Justice Earl Warren stated:

There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.

This created precedent for the idea that the court had the authority to define marriage at a federal level.


Supreme Court of the United States

Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 decision that no state could deny the right of couples to get married based on gender.

The ruling did not mean churches or other private institutions had to marry people. It simply required that every state government had to issue and recognize marriage licenses.

Anthony Kennedy

Image from the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the Opinion of the Court (JUSTIA). As you read his justification for ruling in favor of Obergefell, look for any connections to the benefits of marriage:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

All personal beliefs about same-sex marriage aside, this ruling is a very expansive view of the Constitution.

The justices who voted in favor of Obergefell view the Constitution as a "living document". This means the Constitution, to them, embodies a certain spirit of equality that changes over time.

The phrase "all men are created equal" gives followers of this idea the ability to move in the direction of equality independent of what is literally written in the Constitution about marriage or anything else.


Again, Supreme Court justices decide cases not based on their personal beliefs but on the constitutionality of the arguments.

The four justices who voted against this court case were motivated by their originalist view, which holds that anything not enumerated in the Constitution must be left up to the states.

The idea that the Constitution could be used to generate laws across the country seemed absurd to these judges who felt that Congress should pass an amendment to the Constitution addressing marriage rights instead.

John Roberts, 2005

Image by Steve Petteway, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Read Chief Justice John Roberts' thoughts from his Dissenting Opinion (JUSTIA):

But this Court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be. The people who ratified the Constitution authorized courts to exercise “neither force nor will but merely judgment.” The Federalist No. 78, p. 465 (C. Rossiter ed. 1961) (A. Hamilton).

Move on to the Got It? section to consider how precedent and past rulings led up to this court case.

Image - Button Next