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Today At The High Court, A Triumph For Gay Rights Advocates


The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a landmark ruling this morning. In a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled that gay marriage is now legal across the United States of America. And for more on this we're joined by NPR's senior editor and correspondent, Ron Elving, in the studio.

Ron, good morning.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, David.

GREENE: You know, in college and other times, I remember reading Supreme Court cases from years ago that sort of captured a moment in the country. This feels like one that, you know, 50, a hundred years from now, you know, will be one that students will be reading in history books and trying to understand to capture this day.

ELVING: I think that is true. You go back to Brown v. Board in the 1950s, Roe v. Wade in the 1970s, now we have Obergefell in 2015. But this is not an isolated case. This is the result of a progression, a change over time, in the minds of the Supreme Court, particularly in the mind of Anthony Kennedy, who's been on the bench since the 1980s. He was appointed by Ronald Reagan. And today he has issued a ruling that stands him with the four more liberal justices and in great and marked contrast to the four more conservative justices with whom he is more typically associated. He is the swing vote as we know, and on this issue more than any other. It's also the anniversary of two years ago when Anthony Kennedy cast the deciding vote in the Defense of Marriage case, which essentially defined marriage as one man and one woman. A law passed - and overwhelmingly passed - in the Congress as recently as 1996 and it's signed by then-President Bill Clinton, who has since said he would not sign it again. And we are also looking back on a decision that was made in 2003, again with Anthony Kennedy as the most important pivotal factor in that decision. That was the Lawrence v. Texas case, 2003 - 12 years ago, and that really set the course for the court over the course of all the years since by saying that an anti-sodomy law in Texas - banning homosexual acts - was unconstitutional as a violation of the right to privacy.

GREENE: There's been a sea change in public opinion on this issue, but this still remains a country that is divided. There are many people, religious and otherwise, who are not comfortable with the idea of same-sex marriage. And you know, I just look at Antonin Scalia and writing in his own dissent, that saying he wanted to call attention to this Court's threat to American democracy.

What do you take from that?

ELVING: Strong words from a man of strong convictions. And he speaks for many millions of Americans who are not only uncomfortable with this, but implacably opposed to it. And what Scalia is saying is not only do many Americans find this morally objectionable - and perhaps on religious grounds, perhaps on some other grounds - but there is also the notion that if a legislature, popularly elected, passes a law or passes a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and if a referendum of the citizens - as has happened in many states - corroborates that opinion or sets that in law by referendum, then for the courts to come in and say, no, actually Americans, voters, you're not right about this, there's something that's more important here that you're not understanding yet.

So that, Scalia argues, is a violation of the Democratic principle that the people should decide.

GREENE: What does history tell us about when the Supreme Court decides one way or another on a major sort of cultural society question? Does it then move public opinion in the direction of that decision, or do people sort of still sort this out on their own?

ELVING: In this instance, public opinion is already moving very much in same the direction as the Supreme Court. There are many Americans who are not a part of that movement, but the general movement is quite clear. And as has been said on the program already this morning, it's been moving ahead quite quickly. So the court may not really be ahead of the public on this one the way it may have been on school integration in the '50s or on abortion in the 1970s.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Ron Elving talking to us about a major landmark ruling from the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled that gay marriage is now legal across the country. We'll be having much more coverage of this on the air and online.

Ron, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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