June 7, 2016
By Joshua R. Langdon of Scott E. Knox Attorneys at Law
1. Stonewall riots, 1969
riots took place in response to a police raid that occurred in the early
morning hours of June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York
City’s Greenwich Village. This is widely considered as the most
important event leading up to the modern fight for gay rights in the United
2. Baker v. Nelson, 1971
In Baker v. Nelson, the Minnesota Supreme Court
issued a brief opinion rejecting both a statutory claim and a constitutional
claim that the state’s marriage statute permitted same-sex
marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the appeal "for
want of a substantial federal question.” By this point dozens of same-sex
couples had obtained marriage licenses throughout the country, and ministers of
the Metropolitan Community Church (organized in 1968) began performing weddings
for their gay members. However, throughout the 1970’s none of the several
attempts to get a state to officially recognize same-sex marriages
were successful, and bad case law precedent had been set that lasted until
3. Maryland statute, 1973
Maryland became the
first state to pass a statute specifically excluding gay and lesbian couples
from the institution of marriage. Several states immediately followed its lead
over the next several years, including Virginia, California, Florida and New Hampshire.
4. Denmark's Registered Partnerships Act, 1989
Denmark became the first country to recognize same-sex unions
with the Registered Partnerships Act of 1989, a substitute to marriage for
same-sex couples. While the law was viewed as groundbreaking at that time, gay
and lesbian couples could not be married in the Danish state church or adopt
children. In 2012, Denmark extended full marriage rights to same-sex couples.
5. Baehr v. Lewin, 1993
In Baehr v. Lewin, the Hawaii Supreme Court held that
denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples violated the Equal Protection
Clause of the Hawaii Constitution because it discriminates on the basis of sex.
However, the Court remanded the case to the trial court so that the state would
have an opportunity to demonstrate a compelling government interest for
limiting marriage to persons of the opposite sex. The Hawaii legislature
quickly enacted a new statute that defined marriage to include only heterosexual
couples. The statute also created the Commission on Sexual Orientation and the
Law to study the issue of granting benefits to same-sex couples, which
concluded that same-sex couples should be granted marriage rights. In 1996, the
trial court sided with same-sex couples and ruled that even if the state had
compelling reasons it failed to prove that the Hawaii statute was narrowly
tailored to avoid unnecessary abridgement of constitutional rights. In 1997,
Hawaii became the first state to adopt a domestic partner registry called
“reciprocal beneficiaries” and extended some of the benefits of marriage to same-sex
couples. In 1998, Hawaii voters passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex
marriage, which ultimately led to the dismissal of the Baehr case.
6. Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), 1996
President Clinton signed the so-called
Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) after publicity surrounding
the Hawaii court case brought mainstream attention to same-sex marriage. The
statute effectively deprived same-sex couples of the 1,000+ protections and
responsibilities associated with marriage at the federal level. DOMA also
explicitly permitted states to refuse to recognize out-of-state marriage
contracts entered into between persons of the same sex.
7. Baker v. State of Vermont, 1999
In Baker v. State of Vermont, the Vermont Supreme
Court unanimously ruled that excluding same-sex couples from marriage rights is
unconstitutional. However, the Court did not issue an order directing the state
to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and the Vermont legislature
responded by establishing civil unions—a separate legal status available
exclusively to same-sex couples. Civil unions were similar to marriages in that
the couple must register with the state and enter into the relationship in the presence
of a minister or a justice of the peace. Several states followed this line of reasoning
in the next decade, including Connecticut and New Jersey.
8. The Netherlands legislation, 2000
Netherlands became the first country to extend full marriage rights to same-sex
couples after the legislature passed a law enabling “two people
of different or the same sex” to enter into a marriage.
9. Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, 2004
Massachusetts became the first state to
extend full marriage rights to same-sex couples after the Massachusetts Supreme
Judicial Court ruled in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that
the state’s ban on such unions violates “the basic premises
of individual liberty and equality under law protected by the Massachusetts Constitution.”
The Court later clarified that only marriage—not
marriage-equivalents—sufficiently protects same-sex couples and their
families. In response, 11 states passed constitutional amendments excluding
same-sex couples from marriage.
10. California rulings, 2008
became the first state to first permit same-sex marriages and then take away
marriage rights from same-sex couples, which created different tiers of classifications
for same-sex relationships. In 2005, California enacted a domestic partnership
statute which provided most marital benefits except the title. In 2008, the California
Supreme Court ruled in In Re: Marriage Cases that
California’s statutory prohibition on same-sex marriage is
unconstitutional. Later that year, voters passed Proposition 8, which
overturned the California Supreme Court and enacted a constitutional ban on
same-sex marriage. Proposition 8 was subsequently overturned by the Ninth
Circuit Court of Appeals in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which declared that
the ballot initiative violated the Equal Protection Clause. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Perry decision on the
grounds that Proposition 8 sponsors did not have Article III standing to appeal
after state officials declined to do so.
11. United States v. Windsor, 2013
In United States v. Windsor, the U.S.
Supreme Court held that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act is
unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment. Thus, the federal government must
recognize same-sex marriages. The decision left open the question of whether
all states must also recognize same-sex marriages, which thrust uncertainty all
across the country as illustrated in the map below.
12. Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015
The United States of America becomes the 17th country
to “legalize” same-sex marriage after the U.S.
Supreme Court held in Obergefell v. Hodges that the 14th Amendment
requires states to both perform and recognize same-sex marriages.