The decision means same-sex marriages will begin in 11 states, where lower courts effectively rejected states' same-sex marriage bans. But it also means that the nation's highest court won't rule on the issue of marriage equality just yet. Here's a primer on the full implications of the decision.
Why did the Supreme Court reject the same-sex marriage cases on its docket?
The Supreme Court could be waiting for a decision that contradicts the unanimous victories for marriage equality in circuit courts, since a contradicting opinion would create a rift in the nation's federal appeals courts. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reportedly told a Minnesota audience on September 16 that "there will be some urgency" for the Supreme Court to act if the conservative-leaning Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals allows same-sex marriage bans to stand.
But until a division between the federal appeal courts happens, the Supreme Court appears to be okay with punting on the issue.
Does this mean the Supreme Court won't rule on same-sex marriage?
Not necessarily. As Ginsburg suggested, the Supreme Court could be waiting for a federal appeals court to issue a contradicting opinion before it acts.
It's possible, though very unlikely, that the rest of the circuit courts will all agree to strike down states' same-sex marriage bans, putting them in agreement with the pro-LGBT decisions that have already been issued. In that improbable scenario, there would never be a contradiction in opinions between federal appeals courts, and, if what Ginsberg suggested holds true, the Supreme Court would never need to step in to clear up any legal confusion. Same-sex marriage would just take effect across the country.
Still, both sides of the marriage equality debate see a dodge from the Supreme Court as both unfavorable and unlikely. With the issue now in play in every state, supporters and opponents of marriage equality want to see a decision that settles the issue once and for all.
"My personal view is that the Supreme Court wants to be the one to decide this issue, not the lower courts," said Paul Smith, one of the leading LGBT rights litigators in the country, in a previous interview. "So the Supreme Court will probably take it."
Does this mean lower courts' rulings will now go into effect?
Yes. The cases in Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Indiana were put on hold as they worked through the appeals process. With the Supreme Court deciding not to take any of the appeals, the cases have no other place to go. That means the stays on the lower courts' rulings — all of which were in favor of marriage equality — will immediately cease, and same-sex couples can now marry in those states.
Same-sex couples in six other states — Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming — should be able to marry as well, since those states are also bound by the circuit court rulings the Supreme Court rejected on Monday.
The Supreme Court's rejection will eventually leave same-sex marriage legal in 30 states and the District of Columbia, although some states may take a while to recognize the full effects of the decision.
What other cases could the Supreme Court take up?
There are literally dozens of cases rising through the judicial system as LGBT rights advocates challenge same-sex marriage bans in dozens of states. Any of those cases could eventually rise to the Supreme Court.
Based on Justice Ginsburg's remarks, however, the most likely scenario is that the Supreme Court will hear the appeal for the first circuit court decision that upholds a state's same-sex marriage ban. Ginsburg suggested the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals could provide that decision, but, as Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog pointed out, the Fifth Circuit Court is a potential candidate as well.
How is the Supreme Court expected to rule if takes up a case?
Following the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the federal ban on same-sex marriages, LGBT advocates are fairly confident that the court will rule 5-4 in favor of same-sex marriage rights across the country, based on constitutional rights set by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who's expected to act as the fifth vote that decides the issue, wrote the majority opinion that struck down the federal ban on same-sex marriages with a legal rationale that could apply to states' bans. He argued that the federal ban violated constitutional protections and discriminated against same-sex couples by preventing them from fully accessing "laws pertaining to Social Security, housing, taxes, criminal sanctions, copyright, and veterans' benefits."
Since a similar legal argument applies to state-level programs and benefits attached to marriage, many court watchers expect Kennedy to rule against states' same-sex marriage bans as well.
Opponents of same-sex marriage rights argue the Supreme Court will allow states' bans to stand to protect states' rights. "The US Supreme Court has determined that states have the right to define marriage and we remain confident that they will uphold all the various traditional marriage laws and constitutional amendments that have been wrongly invalidated by federal judges," said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, in a statement. "We look forward to the US Supreme Court taking one or more of the … marriage cases now pending before them, and ultimately ruling that defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman is entirely constitutional."
But there is a precedent for the Supreme Court not allowing states to define marriage when it violates a person's constitutional rights. In Loving v. Virginia in 1967, the Supreme Court deemed states' bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional. "This case presents a constitutional question never addressed by this Court: whether a statutory scheme adopted by the State of Virginia to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment," wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren. "For reasons which seem to us to reflect the central meaning of those constitutional commands, we conclude that these statutes cannot stand consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment."