THE Supreme Court has unexpectedly cleared the way for a dramatic expansion of gay marriage in the United States and may have signalled it is only a matter of time before same-sex couples can marry in all 50 states.
Rejecting appeals from five states seeking to preserve their bans, the highest court in the land effectively made such marriages legal in 30 states, up from 19 plus Washington DC.
While the ruling stops short of resolving for now the question of same-sex marriage nationwide, it is a major victory for advocates of gay marriage.
It continues a dramatic turnaround on the issue across the US in recent years, with gay marriage generally winning approval in court cases, state legislatures and public opinion polls.
Almost immediately, exuberant couples began receiving marriage licences previously denied to them.
“This is the dream day,” said Sharon Baldwin, a plaintiff in a challenge to Oklahoma’s ban, as she and her partner got their licence in the Tulsa County clerk’s office.
Lindsey Oliver, 30, and Nicole Pries, 42, received the first same-sex marriage licence issued from the Richmond Circuit Court clerk’s office in Virginia.
Directly affected by the judgment on Monday were Wisconsin, Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia.
Officials in those states had appealed lower court rulings in an effort to preserve their bans.
Couples in six other states – Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming – should be able to get married in short order since those states would be bound by the same appellate rulings that have been on hold.
Gay marriage has been a volatile social issue in America over the past decade, one that has veered from helping Republicans turn out their conservative base during George W Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 to one that now vexes the party.
Public support has swung rapidly in favour of same-sex marriage in recent years.
That is a big shift since the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared the state’s marriage ban unconstitutional in 2003, prompting states around the US to pass marriage bans.
Lower courts have overturned one same-sex marriage ban after another following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in June 2013 that partially struck down a Clinton-era federal law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Gay marriage proponents have since enjoyed a string of legal victories, winning more than 20 court decisions around the US.
Cases were filed in the 31 states that prohibit same-sex marriage.
While county clerks in a number of states quickly began issuing licences to gay and lesbian couples, in some other states affected by the court’s action officials did not sound ready to give up the fight.
However, their legal options are limited.
The outcome was not what either side expected or wanted. Both gay marriage supporters and opponents had asked the court to resolve whether the constitution grants same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide.
The justices did not explain why they decided to leave that question unanswered for now.
Leaders of the National Organisation for Marriage predicted a backlash in the form of renewed efforts to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
“The notion that the people have nothing to say about this – that unelected judges are going to decide it for us – that’s preposterous,” John Eastman, the organisation’s chairman, said.