12 historical events that helped shape same-sex marriage law

June 7, 2016

By Joshua R. Langdon of Scott E. Knox Attorneys at Law

Stonewall1. Stonewall riots, 1969

The Stonewall 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 States.

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 2015.

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 unionsa 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

 The 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 marriagenot marriage-equivalentssufficiently protects same-sex couples and their families. In response, 11 states passed constitutional amendments excluding same-sex couples from marriage.

10. California rulings, 2008

2013 map

California 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.



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