Federal appeals court ruling may send marriage equality issue back to Supreme Court

In an unprecedented ruling, the court found that the 14th Amendment "protects the fundamental right to marry"

By Katie McDonough
June 25, 2014 9:45PM (UTC)
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(AP Photo/Mathew Sumner)

A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled that states cannot prevent gay couples from getting married. The ruling -- which finds that "the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right to marry" -- is unprecedented at the appellate level, and may very well send the issue of marriage equality back to the Supreme Court.

As the Associated Press reports, in a 2-to-1 ruling, the three-judge panel upheld a lower court ruling that struck down Utah's ban on equal marriage. The judges issued the ruling and then immediately put it on hold so that it could be appealed, which it in all likelihood will be -- possibly to the full Tenth Circuit or to the Supreme Court.


Here's the relevant text from the full ruling (emphasis mine):

Last year, the [Supreme] Court entertained the federal aspect of the issue in striking down [Section 3] of the Defense of Marriage Act […] yet left open the question presented to us now in full bloom: May a State of the Union constitutionally deny a citizen the benefit or protection of the laws of the State based solely upon the sex of the person that citizen chooses to marry? Having heard and carefully considered the arguments of the litigants, we conclude that, consistent with the United States Constitution, the State of Utah may not do so.

We hold that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right to marry, establish a family, raise children, and enjoy the full protection of a state's marital laws. A state may not deny the issuance of a marriage license to two persons, or refuse to recognize their marriage, based solely upon the sex of the persons in the marriage union.

The high court's rulings on DOMA and Proposition 8 -- issued almost a year ago to the day -- set off a chain reaction of equal marriage victories across the country, but the court declined to rule on the larger issue of whether or not it was unconstitutional for states to deny gay couples the ability to marry. If Utah appeals and the Tenth Circuit takes up the appeal, the ruling will impact equal marriage laws in six states, including Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. If the case goes to the Supreme Court, the justices will have to grapple with that question and the outcome would have national impact.

Judge Carlos F. Lucero, writing for the panel, also addressed equal marriage opponents who argue that marriage equality undermines so-called traditional marriage. "We emphatically agree with the numerous cases decided since Windsor that it is wholly illogical to believe that state recognition of the love and commitment between same-sex couples will alter the most intimate and personal decisions of opposite-sex couples," he wrote.


Peggy Tomsic, the lawyer for the Utah couples behind the court challenge, celebrated the ruling. “Today’s decision by the Tenth Circuit affirms the fundamental principles of equality and fairness and the common humanity of gay and lesbian people," she said in a statement. "As the Court recognized, these families are part of Utah’s community, and equal protection requires that they be given the same legal protections and respect as other families in this state. The Court’s ruling is a victory not only for the courageous couples who brought this case, but for our entire state and every state within the Tenth Circuit.”

"All I can say is that we are thrilled," Kody Partridge, one of the Utah plaintiffs, told the Associated Press.

As the Associated Press notes, there is no guarantee that this is the case that will ultimately reach the Supreme Court, but it has certainly brought us one step closer to that possibility:


Though the Utah and Oklahoma cases have been closely watched, it is unclear whether they will be the first to reach the Supreme Court. The high court could choose from cases moving through five other federal appellate courts, and wouldn't consider a case until next year at the earliest.

More to come as this story develops.


Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Doma Equal Marriage Gay Rights Lgbt Rights Marriage Equality Prop 8 U.s. Constitution Utah