In celebration of Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day I would like to share with you a different perspective of love and marriage, through the eyes of a law student who saw beauty where no one would expect to find it and even fewer would look—in a judicial opinion.
Marriage is viewed as a fundamental right by our government. Two of the most notable Supreme Court cases establishing this right are Loving v. Virginia (1967) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).
Loving v. Virginia ruled that state laws banning interracial marriage are unconstitutional. In the judicial opinion, Chief Justice Warren said that “[t]he freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” I want to acknowledge that the institution of marriage is sometimes seen as heteronormative and that marriage does not have a monopoly on love, commitment, or family. However, for those to whom it is meaningful, Justice Warren is right, “marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival.” Which must be why the Lovings drove to DC and Jim Obergefell and his late husband John Arthur flew to Maryland—to promise their lives to each other in states that would recognize them.
Everyone has heard of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), whether or not they realize it. Obergefell was the landmark decision that established the right to same-sex marriage under the Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity without the state interfering.” This includes the right to be with and to marry a person of the same sex.
Many people don’t know the story of Jim Obergefell and John Arthur and even fewer have read the beautiful Supreme Court decision that recognized their marriage after John Arthur’s death.
Obergefell and Arthur had been together for 20 years when Arthur was diagnosed with ALS. The couple lived in Ohio which did not allow same-sex marriage and Arthur was unable to travel, he was dying. Their friends and families raised $13,000 so that they could fly to Maryland on a medical plane. They flew from Ohio to Maryland to get married on the tarmac at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport and leave. Arthur died three months later, and the State of Ohio refused to recognize Obergefell as his husband, so he sued…and won marriage equality for us all, whether we choose to use it or not.
“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. 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.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for Obergefell and I was struck by this remarkable Supreme Court decision, not only because of what it did, but also because of its poetry. It was not merely another stuffy Fourteenth Amendment opinion—it was beautiful.
Sweet words on love and marriage are often found in romantic poetry, tender prose, and the sweetest music—the kind that can steal your breath and make your heart beat faster. When an author can sweep an audience away by exposing the passion and longing in their heart in an intimate communion with the reader, it feels like falling in love. No one would ever have guessed that a Supreme Court decision authored by an old republican Catholic judge would include, alongside the law, poetry.
If you cut out the legal analysis and keep what Justice Kennedy says about love and marriage, it can be strung together and sculpted into something amazing, maybe even worthy of wedding vows. I doubt that I am the first person to see this, but here is my version. The vast majority of the following text is directly quoted from the Obergefell opinion with minor changes to make it flow better. As an aesthetic choice, I did not use quotation marks or brackets.
I will not acknowledge the dissenting opinions further than saying that the best thing about a Scalia dissent is that he’s dead.
Obergefell v. Hodges, Adapted
There are untold references to the beauty of marriage in religious and philosophical texts spanning time, cultures, and faiths, as well as in art and literature in all their forms.
From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of spouses always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.
Choices about marriage shape an individual’s destiny. It fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity. Civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.
The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons. There is dignity in the bond between lovers who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices.
Marriage is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred. It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects. Yet it is an association for as noble a purpose as any.
The right to marry thus dignifies couples who wish to define themselves by their commitment to each other. Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.
Just as a couple vows to support each other, so does society pledge to support the couple, offering symbolic recognition and material benefits to protect and nourish the union.
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. Marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.