Same-Sex Marriage: Developments in the Law

Information on same-sex marriage, domestic partnerships, and civil unions.

By , Attorney

NOTE TO READERS: This article addresses the legal situation before the Supreme Court's June, 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

A common dictionary definition of family is "the basic unit in society having two or more adults living together and cooperating in the care and rearing of children." How do same-sex couples fit into this definition? Despite the all-inclusive description, same-sex couples and LGBT families have long been excluded from the legal definitions of family. But things are changing, and same-sex couples have made strides toward equal recognition of their families.

Same-Sex Marriage Legal in 32 States and D.C.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in well more than half of all U.S. states. Currently, 32 states and D.C. allow same-sex couples to marry: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, the state of Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Here's how it all happened:

2003: The Massachusetts Supreme Court held that the state law barring same-sex marriage was unconstitutional under the Massachusetts constitution and ordered the legislature to remedy the discrimination within six months (Goodridge v. Department of Public Health). In February 2004, the court ruled that offering civil unions instead of civil marriage would not meet the requirements set forth in Goodridge.

October 2008: The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state's civil union law discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation and was unconstitutional and that "the segregation of heterosexual and homosexual couples into separate institutions constitutes a [constitutionally] cognizable harm." The court held that same-sex couples must be allowed to marry, and the state started issuing marriage licenses in November 2008.

April 2009: Iowa and Vermont joined the ranks of states with full marriage equality. In Iowa, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state's law limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples was unconstitutional and that same-sex couples must have access to marriage. Vermont became the first state to enact marriage equality through legislative action when the state legislature legalized same-sex marriage. The law went into effect on September 1, 2009.

June 2009: The New Hampshire legislature passed a same-sex marriage bill. Though Governor John Lynch personally opposes gay marriage, he signed the bill into law the same day. "Today, we are standing up for the liberties of same-sex couples by making clear that they will receive the same rights, responsibilities -- and respect -- under New Hampshire law," Lynch said. The bill became effective in January 2010.

March 2010: Same-sex marriage became legal in D.C. after the city council's vote went through a Congressional approval period without a glitch.

2011: The New York legislature legalized gay marriage.

November 2012: Voters approved samepsex marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington State.

2013: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, and Rhode Island passed same-sex marriage bills, effective in July 2013 (Delaware), August 2013 (Minnesota and Rhode Island), December 2013 (Hawaii), and July 2014 (Illinois).

2013: Courts in New Jersey and New Mexico ruled that same-sex marriages must be allowed there.

Same-Sex Marriage in California

After a long, drawn-out marriage equality battle, California became the 13th state to recognize same-sex marriage. On May 15, 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that limiting marriage to persons of the opposite sex violates the California Constitution and ordered the language stricken from the statute. From June until November of 2008, approximately 18,000 same-sex couples wed in California. But the passage of Proposition 8 (the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage) in November 2008 once again limited marriage in California to opposite-sex couples.

In January 2010, a landmark federal trial took place in California -- involving a challenge to Prop. 8 based on federal law. U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional (the case is called Perry v. Schwarzenegger). The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Walker's opinion, but stayed his order, meaning that no same-sex marriages could take place until the appeal was completed. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) as Hollingsworth v. Perry. On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed Perry because, it found, Prop. 8 supporters had no "standing" to litigate the issue (they could not show a sufficient connection to any harm resulting from the lower court's ruling).

The June 26 decision cleared the path for same-sex marriages to resume in California, but they could not take place until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the stay of the lower court's order. The Ninth Circuit surprised everyone by dissolving the stay only two days after SCOTUS' decision. Same-sex marriages began again in California on July 1, 2013.

If you are in a same-sex couple and were married during the four-month-period in 2008 when same-sex marriage was first legal in California, your marriage is still valid.

1 | 2 Next Page

Find a Lawyer

Start here to find family and divorce lawyers near you.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Get Professional Help

Talk to a Family attorney.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you