Same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry nationwide, the U.S. Supreme Court said Friday in a historic ruling that caps the biggest civil rights transformation in a half century.
Voting 5-4, the justices said states lack any legitimate reason to deprive gay couples of the freedom to marry. Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court’s four Democratic appointees in the majority, bringing gay weddings to the 14 states where they were still banned.
Gay couples “ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” Kennedy wrote. “The Constitution grants them that right.”
The ruling is a legal landmark, on par with the 1967 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed interracial couples the right to wed. It punctuates a period of sweeping change in the rights of gays, coming only 11 years after Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriages.
The decision is likely to meet resistance in parts of the country and spark new legal fights. North Carolina has a new law that lets court officials refuse to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies. The Alabama Supreme Court has stopped probate judges from complying with a ruling legalizing marriage.
Gay-rights advocates, meanwhile, will intensify their efforts to win anti-discrimination protections, both at the federal level and in the dozens of states where people can still be fired or denied housing because of sexual orientation.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. Roberts read a summary of his dissent from the bench for the first time in his 10 years on the court. Each of the four wrote a separate dissenting opinion.
Roberts wrote that the gay couples “make strong arguments rooted in social policy and consideration of fairness.” But, he said, “under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be.”
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Kennedy in the majority.
The ruling comes at a time of record support among Americans for same-sex weddings. A Gallup poll conducted in May showed 60 percent favoring legalized same-sex marriage and 37 percent opposed. As recently as 1999, only 27 percent approved.
Hundreds of companies, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Google Inc. and Walt Disney Co., pressed the court to legalize gay marriage nationwide. They said it would help them attract talented workers and simplify their employee-benefit packages across the country.
The Supreme Court case involved 31 people from Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky. A federal appeals court had ruled against gay weddings, saying changes to marriage laws should come through the political process, not the courtroom.