State and federal laws concerning same-sex marriage has a relatively brief history, beginning with the first lawsuit in 1971 and ending with the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide. However, prior to the Court’s landmark ruling in Obergefell, an entrenched cultural, legal, and legislative battle ensued in virtually all states, often resulting in short-lived periods of legalized same-sex marriage in some states. This section covers the history of gay marriage, the now-defunct federal Defense of Marriage Act, various state laws prior to the legalization of gay marriage, court decisions that authorized or prohibited same-sex marriage, and more.

First Challenge to Same-Sex Marriage Bans

The first court challenge to same-sex marriage bans came in 1970, after two gay University of Minnesota students were denied their request for a marriage license on the grounds that they were of the same gender. They claimed violations of the First, Eighth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Their claim was dismissed and subsequently appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which also rejected their claim.

Finally, in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a summary dismissal of the case (Baker v. Nelson), thereby affirming the Minnesota Supreme Court’s ruling. This ruling set a precedent that would not be reversed federally for another 43 years.

State Conflicts Over Same-Sex Marriage

Since marriage is largely an issue of state law, the battle over same-sex marriage rights played out primarily in state courts and legislatures. In addition, many of the laws banning or legalizing gay marriage came through the ballot initiative process. The first state to legalize same-sex marriage was Massachusetts, in 2003, through a court ruling. But state legislators moved to prohibit same-sex “marriage” in favor of “civil unions.” The Court said this legislation was unconstitutional, leading to the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses in the state beginning in May 2004.

Meanwhile, in that same year, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom directed the county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This was halted by a temporary stay from the California Supreme Court, followed by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of a bill that would have codified equal access to marriage in the state. In May 2008, the state Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional, which in turn was followed by the passage of Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that once again banned same-sex marriage.

After additional court challenges and appeals from both the state and federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively rejected Proposition 8 and made same-sex marriage legal in the state.

The Final Ruling: Obergfell v. Hodges

The issue of same-sex marriage was settled in 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment fundamentally protects the right of same-sex couples to get married. The case, Obergefell v. Hodges, was a split decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, stated: “Decisions about marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.”