Updated: 9:30 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — Same-sex couples won the right to marry nationwide Friday as a divided Supreme Court handed a crowning victory to the LGBT rights movement, setting off a jubilant cascade of long-delayed weddings in states where they had been forbidden.
“No longer may this liberty be denied,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The vote was narrow – 5-4 – but Kennedy’s majority opinion was clear and firm: “The court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry.”
The ruling will put an end to same-sex marriage bans in the 14 states that still maintain them, and provide an exclamation point for breathtaking changes in the nation’s social norms in recent years. As recently as last October, just over one-third of the states permitted gay marriages.
Kennedy’s reading of the ruling elicited tears in the courtroom, euphoria outside and the immediate issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples in at least eight states. In Dallas, Kenneth Denson said he and Gabriel Mendez had been legally married in 2013 in California but “we’re Texans; we want to get married in Texas.”
In praise of the decision, President Barack Obama called it “justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”
Four of the court’s justices weren’t cheering. The dissenters accused their colleagues of usurping power that belongs to the states and to voters, and short-circuiting a national debate about same-sex marriage.
“This court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in dissent. Roberts read a summary of his dissent from the bench, the first time he has done so in nearly 10 years as chief justice.
“If you are among the many Americans – of whatever sexual orientation – who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision,” Roberts said. “But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”
Justice Antonin Scalia said he was not concerned so much about same-sex marriage as “this court’s threat to American democracy.” He termed the decision a “judicial putsch.” Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas also dissented.
Several religious organizations criticized the decision.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said it was “profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage.”
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The 14th Amendment to the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex couples to marry on the same basis as heterosexuals, he said.
“The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right. The nation’s courts are open to injured individuals who come to them to vindicate their own direct, personal stake in our basic charter,” Kennedy wrote in his fourth major opinion in support of gay rights since 1996. It came on the anniversary of two of those earlier decisions.
“No union is more profound than marriage,” Kennedy wrote, joined by the court’s four more liberal justices.