The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday made marriage for same-sex couples legal nationwide, declaring that refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples violates the Constitution.
The landmark ruling will produce the most significant change in laws governing matrimony since the court struck down state bans on inter-racial marriage almost 50 years ago.
The majority opinion in the 5-4 decision was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy.
"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were," Kennedy wrote. "As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death."
Kennedy went on to speak directly to the type of criticism that often comes from conservatives in pushing back against marriage equality.
"It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves," Kennedy said. "Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."
A total of 36 states now permit gay couples to get married, covering roughly 70 percent of the US population. Today's ruling means the bans must end in the other 14 states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas.
The decision capped a remarkably quick turnaround in public and judicial acceptance of same-sex marraige. In the past 18 months, court rulings struck down marriage bans in rapid succession -- nearly 60 separate decisions in more than half the states.
Today's ruling overturned a decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, which said states had legitimate reasons for maintaining the traditional definition of marriage. The appeals court also said it would be better "to allow change through the customary political processes" instead of the courts.
Public opinion has shifted dramatically in recent years. The first Gallup poll on the subject showed only 27 percent approval for same-sex marriage in 1996. Gallup's most recent poll, taken last month, showed 60 percent approval.