Supreme Court: Gay couples have ‘fundamental right to marry’

Colleen Condon (right) and her fiancee, Nichols Bleckley, were the first same-sex couple to receive a South Carolina marriage license together in November.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, setting a long-awaited national precedent for couples living in a country sharply divided over the issue.

The justices voted 5-4 with Chief Justice John Roberts dissenting with the conservative wing of the court, Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Same-sex couples now can marry in every state.

Charleston County Councilwoman Colleen Condon, who received South Carolina’s first same-sex marriage license with fiancee Nichols Bleckley, was boarding an airplane to go on vacation when the news came down.

“We are so pleased that marriage equality is nationwide today,” she said.

Writing the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said same-sex couples have a “fundamental right to marry,” as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” Kennedy wrote. “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.”

Kennedy added that same-sex couples respect the institution of marriage and simply want to partake in it.

“Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right,” Kennedy wrote.

The timing of Friday’s ruling was bittersweet for many. It came out just as thousands amassed in downtown Charleston hoping to get into a packed funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney who was murdered along with eight other black clergy and parishioners of Emanuel AME Church, allegedly gunned down by a white racist as they held a Bible study last week.

Truman Smith, a board member of the Alliance for Full Acceptance, grappled with conflicting feelings of sorrow and joy.

“Many of us in Charleston have very mixed emotions,” Truman said. “We are ecstatic that marriage equality is finally available to all Americans. However, our hearts still ache from last week’s tragedy at Mother Emanuel. What we’ve learned from the grieving families is that love triumphs. And love also triumphs with this ruling.”

Among mourners waiting in a long line on a brutally hot morning to attend Pinckney’s funeral Friday was the Rev. Bill McGill, a Baptist minister from Indiana. He heard news of the ruling just before being turned away from a packed TD Arena. He supports civil unions for same-sex couples but not marriage.

“The ruling is long overdue, but for some of us the spiritual rules remain,” McGill said.

Two issues were at stake in Friday’s ruling. The justices considered whether the Constitution gives same-sex couples the right to marry and whether states must recognize those marriages from other states.

When they last looked at same-sex marriage in 2013, the justices struck down part of the federal anti-gay marriage law. Since then, in a tidal wave across the country, from liberal urban centers to conservative red-state swaths, most federal courts have relied on that opinion to invalidate state gay marriage bans, including in South Carolina.

However, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, creating a patchwork of states with legal same-sex marriage and leading to the high court’s consideration of the issue. At the time of Friday’s ruling, 13 states still had bans on same-sex marriages in place. The court’s decision invalidates those laws.

Speaking from the White House Rose Garden on Friday morning, President Barack Obama hailed the court’s landmark ruling as a victory for gay and lesbian couples and the rest of the country. He spoke shortly before flying to Charleston to deliver Pinckney’s eulogy.

“This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts. When all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free,” Obama said. “Today we can say, in no uncertain terms, that we have made our union a little more perfect.”

Same-sex marriages have been legal in South Carolina since November when two district judges ruled against the state’s voter-approved gay marriage ban in separate cases.

Appeals of both were on hold pending the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In one, Condon and Bleckley sued for the right to marry. In the other, Highway Patrol trooper Katherine Bradacs and Air Force veteran Tracie Goodwin, who have three children, married legally in Washington, D.C., and then sought to get their marriage recognized in their home state of South Carolina.

M. Malissa Burnett, a lead attorney for Condon and Bleckley, wiped tears from her eyes as she sat at her law office desk in Columbia and read the Supreme Court’s opinion.

“Oh my gosh! I’m reading the decision, five to four. Oh, I’m just so relieved that there’s a ‘yes’ vote on both of the questions. I was so afraid the court would vote ‘yes’ on recognition but ‘no’ on” requiring states to issue marriage licenses,” she said.

The lawsuit Burnett brought opened the doors to same-sex marriages in South Carolina last fall.

“The freedom to marry is available to all who love each other. The court will provide equal protection for the couples and their families,” Burnett added. “This means they will have all of the rights of other married couples — legal, financial and medical.”

Attorney John Nichols, who represented Bradacs and Goodwin in South Carolina’s other major case, said his clients are “both relieved and ecstatic. The majority got it right, and we are a step closer to equality in this country.”

However, state Attorney General Alan Wilson, who fought to uphold South Carolina’s voter-approved gay marriage ban, called the ruling “a devastating blow” to the 10th Amendment, which delegates federal and state powers.

“Our system of government was founded upon checks and balances within different branches of government, not upon the unlimited power of unelected judges,” Wilson said in a statement. “It is now imperative for us to protect the religious freedom upon which our country was founded. No individual or faith-based institution should be forced to violate deeply held religious beliefs.”

The ruling frustrated orthodox Christians who interpret Scripture as condemning same-sex marriage.

The Diocese of South Carolina, which broke away from The Episcopal Church, issued a statement on behalf of its 53 parishes noting that while the ruling impacts civil marriage, it doesn’t affect religious marriage. “We stand firmly under the authority of Holy Scripture, in continuity with the 2,000-year history of the church, and in accord with the vast majority of Christians around the world.”

The Rev. Edward Grant wasn’t surprised that the justices overrode the will of voters who passed gay marriage bans, often by wide margins.

“By a single vote these five ‘injustices’ of the Supreme Court violate the definition and practice of marriage that has existed since the founding of our country and, indeed, since the founding of civilization itself,” said Grant, pastor of Calvary Lutheran in West Ashley.

Chief Justice Roberts agreed. He criticized the court majority for writing their social views into the Constitution.

Indeed, the ruling reflects recent public opinion polls that show growing approval of same-sex marriage. More than half of Americans now say it should be legal.

“In our state, where we value tradition, it may happen more slowly than other parts of the country,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “But you can just feel in the last week how people in Charleston — and outside of Charleston — really have come together in unity and diversity.”

The issue is especially laden with emotion for people directly impacted by it.

“I feel like God blessed America today by helping us transcend the hate, the division and the notion that we are separate from one another,” local resident Trish Bender said. “In word and now law, we are all truly one nation under God.”

Doug Pardue and Deanna Pan contributed to this report. Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.