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The Fight for Marriage Equality

From DOMA to the states to the Supreme Court

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  • 2013: Section 3 of DOMA was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, making the federal government recognize and protect same-sex marriage. [HISTORY]
  • 14 states maintained bans on allowing or recognizing same-sex marriages.
  • 2015: The Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a legal right in all states. [BBC]



CIVICS: Under federal law, a union through marriage affords each individual several benefits, including tax breaks, health insurance coverage, and benefits when a spouse dies. United States v. Windsor (2010) exposed the impact on an individual of not protecting those benefits. [HISTORY


SOCIAL: The decades-long fight for marriage equality illustrates how progress can be slowly achieved in the United States. Laws can be changed; politicians and leaders can change their opinions.



Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law. [Vox]


DOMA states, for the purposes of federal law, the words "marriage" and "spouse" refer to legal unions between one man and one woman. [Oyez]



Legalize same-sex marriage! 

From 2004 to 2015, 36 states passed marriage equality legislation or their state Supreme Court struck down bans.

  • 2004: Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.
  • 2008: Connecticut was the next state.
  • 2009 - 2015: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming recognized marriage equality.

Ban same-sex marriage!

Up until 2015, 14 states did not legally recognize nor protect the union of same-sex couples. Those states included:

  • Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisana, Ohio, North Dakota, Nebraska, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, South Dakota, Tennesse, Texas


2013: United States v. Windsor

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages.


The Court held that DOMA imposed a "disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma" on same-sex couples. The majority saw this as a violation of the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection. [Oyez]


The Court ruled that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional, therefore, the federal government must provide and protect the federal benefits provided to married couples. [HISTORY]



2015: Obergefell v. Hodges

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must recognize same-sex marriages. 


This made all same-sex marriage legal, regardless of state. [NPR]


Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the plaintiffs asked "for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right." [U.S Supreme Court]


This rule required all 14 states that maintained bans to drop all policy and enforcement around them, as their bans were now viewed as unconstitutional. [BBC]


2020: Signal of changing precedent?

Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito issued dissenting opinions on the Obergefell case. 

Justice Thomas wrote that the court's decision "enables courts and governments to brand religious adherents who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman as bigots, making their religious liberty concerns that much easier to dismiss." [NPR]


  • Jun. 2015: Same-sex marriage is legal in all states in the U.S. [BBC]
  • Mar. 2015: Probate judges in Alabama were refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, exposing a flaw in state legislation. [The New York Times]
  • May 2019: The Alabama legislature passed a bill removing issuing all marriage licenses from probate judges' job duties. [Montgomery Adviser]
  • Oct. 2020: Pope Francis publically endorse civil union law for same-sex couples. The Pope said, “Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God.” [Associated Press]
  • The LGBTQ+ community is still fighting for equal opportunity, civil rights, and protections under law. Discrimination based on sexuality or sexual orientation is still prevalent and o. Read more about the fight here.


  • How does the fight for marriage equality illustrate how some social movements are fought for overtime?  
  • 2001: Pew Research Center found 57% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, 35% supported it. [Pew Research Center]
  • 2016: Pew Research Center found 55% of Americans supported same-sex marriage, 37% opposed. [Pew Research Center]
  • 2004 was notable not only because Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, but it was also notable because 11 states responded with state-level bans on gay marriage. Did that response slow efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in other states? [HISTORY]
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