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Nine Major Moments From the Landmark Supreme Court Battle Over Gay Unions: 'Core Definition' of Marriage 'Will No Longer Be Operable

"More ­­adopted children and more marital households, whether same sex or other sex seems to be a good thing."

Photo credit: Shutterstock

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday for Obergefell v. Hodges, a landmark same-sex marriage case that will have a profound impact on the ability of American states to define legal unions, with the justices appearing starkly divided on how to tackle the issue.

A range of opinions were evident among the nine Supreme Court justices, with some making it known through their lines of questioning that they favor legalization — and others pausing to consider the historical tradition of upholding opposite-sex marriage.

This photo taken Friday, Oct. 3, 2014, shows the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. A Supreme Court term that is starting Monday, Oct. 6, 2014, with a lack of headline-grabbing cases may end with a blockbuster that helps define the legacy of the court under Chief Justice John Roberts. That's because the justices appear likely to take on the issue of same-sex marriage and decide once and for all whether gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to marry. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) AP Photo/Susan Walsh U.S. Supreme Court (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Read nine of the key moments during Tuesday's court proceedings below:


1) Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concerns over a court ruling that could shut down discussion surrounding gay marriage in America, worrying that sweeping legalization could "close minds":

"The situation in Maine, I think, is characteristic. In 2009, I guess it was by referendum, whatever, they banned gay marriage. In 2012, they enacted it as law. I mean, that sort of quick change has been a characteristic of this debate, but if you prevail here, there will be no more debate.

I mean, closing of debate can close minds, and it will have a consequence on how this new institution is­ accepted. People feel very differently about something if they have a chance to vote on it than if it's imposed on them by the courts."

2) Roberts also discussed the debate over whether gays and lesbians are asking to join marriage or whether they are redefining the institution's very meaning, seemingly leaning more toward the latter option.

"Well, you say join in the institution. The argument on the other side is that they're seeking to redefine the institution. Every definition that I looked up, prior to about a dozen years ago, defined marriage as unity between a man and a woman as husband and wife. Obviously, if you succeed, that core definition will no longer be operable.


My question is you're not seeking to join the institution, you're seeking to change what the institution is. The fundamental core of the institution is the opposite­-sex relationship and you want to introduce into it a same-sex relationship."

3) Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed sympathy for gay couples, while also pausing to consider the ramifications of sweeping legalization. In comments during Tuesday's arguments, he pushed back against some conservative claims about gay unions:

"But that assumes that same-­sex couples could not have the more noble purpose, and that's the whole point. Same­-sex couples say, of course, we understand the nobility and the sacredness of the marriage. We know we can't procreate, but we want the other attributes of it in order to show that we, too, have a dignity that can be fulfilled."

Listen to part one of the proceedings below:

4) But Kennedy also discussed historical tradition and the court's appropriate role in defining what the term "marriage" actually means:

"One of the problems is when you think about these cases you think about words or cases, and ­ the word that keeps coming back to me in this case is ­­ is millennia, plus time. First of all, there has not been really time, so the respondents say, for the Federal system to engage in this debate, the separate States. … I don't even know how to count the decimals when we talk about millennia. This definition has been with us for millennia. And it's very difficult for the court to say, oh, well, we know better."

5) And one of the most controversial critiques to emerge in the gay marriage debate made an appearance when Justice Samuel Alito asked some questions about polygamy and the difference between allowing same-sex marriage and multiple matrimony. Like polygamy, same-sex marriage is something that Alito said has never been done before:

"Well, what if there's no ­­— these are 4 people, 2 men and 2 women, it's not ­­— it's not the sort of polygamous relationship, polygamous marriages that existed in other societies and still exist in some societies today. And let's say they're all consenting adults, highly educated. They're all lawyers. What would be the ground­­ under the logic of the decision you would like us to hand down in this case? What would be the logic of denying them the same right?"

Here's part two of the proceedings:

6) While some of her peers were cautious, Justice Sonia Sotomayor struck a more positive tone on gay marriage legalization, pushing back against claims that liberty would somehow be impeded by allowing it:

"I'm sorry. Nobody is taking that away from anybody. Every single individual in this society chooses, if they can, their sexual orientation or who to marry or not marry. I suspect even with us giving gays rights to marry some gay people who will choose not to. Just as there's some heterosexual couples who choose not to marry. So we're not taking anybody's liberty away."

7) Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg mirrored this sentiment in also highlighting her belief that nothing is being stripped from heterosexual couples if the court does decide to allow same-sex marriage:

"All of the incentives, all of the benefits that marriage affords would still be available. So you're not taking away anything from heterosexual couples. They would have the very same incentive to marry, all the benefits that come with marriage that they do now."

8) Ginsburg also noted that the definition of marriage has changed over time, using that fact to argue in favor of same-sex unions:

"Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female,” she explained. “That ended as a result of this court’s decision in 1982 when Louisiana’s Head and Master Rule was struck down … Would that be a choice that a state should be allowed to have? To cling to marriage the way it once was?"

9) Procreation and children were subjects brought up in the debate over why some opt for traditional marriage structures, though Justice Elena Kagan tackled the related issue of adoption.

"More ­­adopted children and more marital households, whether same sex or other sex seems to be a good thing," she said.


A Supreme Court decision is expected in June. You can read more about Obergefell v. Hodges here and see part one and part two of the transcript from Tuesday's proceedings.

(H/T: USA Today)


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