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The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the US after years of legal battles

On June 26, 2015, the US Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges struck down states’ same-sex marriage bans as unconstitutional, effectively bringing marriage equality to all 50 states. Although the cases dealt with laws in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee specifically, the court’s decision encompassed the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans across the nation.

Over time, same-sex marriage rights have spread from Massachusetts in 2004 to two states in 2008 to eight states and Washington, DC, in 2012 to 37 states and DC just prior to the Supreme Court ruling — through court decisions, ballot initiatives, and state legislatures. In the remaining states where same-sex marriages are still prohibited, there are pending or ongoing court challenges. The Supreme Court’s ruling completes the long march, bringing marriage equality to all 50 states.

Christophe Haubursin/Vox

The same-sex marriage battle had been decades in the making. In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the state, making Massachusetts the first state in the country to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, in 2004.

At the same time, states through the 1990s and 2000s enacted bans on same-sex marriages through constitutional amendments and other legislation after the Hawaii Supreme Court suggested in 1993 that prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying might violate the state’s constitution. It’s these bans that became the focal point of the debate in courts, as pro-LGBTQ organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights challenged them as unconstitutional.

Many of the lower-court decisions were prompted by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor, which cited the 14th Amendment to strike down the federal government’s ban on same-sex marriages. Lower courts by and large interpreted the 2013 decision to confirm that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process clauses apply to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, meaning that states — just like the federal government — were required to grant equal rights under marriage laws to same-sex couples. But not all lower courts agreed on the issue, so in early 2015 the Supreme Court agreed to take up the cases.

This history is important not just because it led to the Supreme Court decision’s establishing marriage equality in the US, but because it also shaped the arguments and growing public support for same-sex marriage rights. As the Supreme Court considered a decision that would affect millions of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans, this history and public opinion played a crucial role — and helped usher in a widespread understanding that same-sex marriage rights are about bringing equality to the law.