Same Sex Marriage Laws in the United States

In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the right to get married must be extended to same-sex couples. The ruling dramatically changed the landscape of same-sex marriage laws across the country. Prior to this ruling, states were empowered with the right to decide whether or not same-sex marriage would be permissible within its own boundaries.

Since the federal government was long-silent on the topic, same-sex marriage has always been a hotly contested issue in the United States. Over the past few decades, the rights and privileges extended to the LGBT community have increased significantly. However, many states have remained stubbornly adverse to extending equal rights to same-sex couples under the law.

Timeline of Same-Sex Marriage Laws in the United States


1971: The first reported request for a marriage license by a same-sex couple took place in 1970. There, two young University of Minnesota students filed a formal request with the state to get married. Their request, as you may expect, was denied. The couple contested the denial and their case made it all the way to the Supreme Court of Minnesota. The Court held that denying same-sex couples the right to marry did not violate the Constitution.

1973: On the heels of the Minnesota ruling, Maryland became the first state to formally ban same-sex couples from getting married.

1976: A few years later, a same-sex couple in Washington shook the nation when they walked down the aisle and vowed to love one another for the rest of their lives. While the union was not recognized under the law, the act brought the issue of whether same-sex couples should have the right to marry back into the public eye.


1984: One year after a discussion of same-sex couples and spousal rights overwhelmed conversation, Berkeley, California passed the first domestic partnership law. Under the law, same-sex couples could enjoy many of the benefits of legally married couples, but were not considered married in the eyes of the law. While this did allow some same-sex couples to enjoy limited spousal benefits, it was also a reminder that same-sex couples were not seen as equal.

1989: Are same-sex couples family? Should they be entitled to receive the legal benefits that are extended to heterosexual couples? In groundbreaking court decisions, both New York and California recognized the term “family,” for the purposes of state law, should include same-sex couples.


1993: Same-sex marriage has some ups and downs in Hawaii. First, the Hawaiian Supreme Court held that same-sex couples can only be denied the right to get married if the state has a compelling reason.  Shortly after this decision, lawmakers in the state statutorily banned same-sex marriage.

1996: President Bill Clinton signs the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which declares that for the purposes of federal law, marriage is limited to the union of heterosexual couples. States retained the right to define marriage for themselves, but same-sex couples married under state law were still prohibited from receiving federal benefits of marriage.

1997: Four years after banning same-sex marriage, Hawaii becomes the first state to extend domestic partnerships to same-sex couples.

1999: The highest court in Vermont holds that the state Constitution extends benefits and protections to same-sex and heterosexual couples equally.


2000: Vermont lawmakers pass a law affirming the high court’s decision to extend benefits and protections to same-sex couples. That same year, Nebraska passed a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

2002: Nevada passes a law banning same-sex marriage.

2003: Same-sex marriage gains traction across the country:

  • The Supreme Court holds that the right to sexual privacy is a constitutional right, paving the way for the LGBT community to secure equality under the law.
  • California’s domestic partnership law extends most of the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples.
  • Thanks to a court decision, Massachusetts becomes the first state where same-sex marriage is legal.

2004: An increasing number of states and local governments begin to set policy regarding same-sex marriage and unions:

  • San Francisco, CA and Portland, OR both ignore state law and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. California instructs San Francisco to stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses, while Oregon places a temporary stay on the issuance of all marriage licenses.
  • Courts in Washington and California weigh in on same-sex marriage: Washington says “yes,” while California says “no.”
  • Massachusetts formally legalizes same-sex marriage.
  • Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah pass laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

2005: States continue to struggle with how to treat same-sex couples under the law:

  • New York’s state ban on same-sex marriage is declared to be in violation of the Constitution.
  • California lawmakers successfully pass a law making same-sex unions legal, but the governor refuses to sign the bill into law.
  • Connecticut is the second state where same-sex civil unions are permitted.
  • Texas joins 18 other states and adopts a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

2006: Maryland’s ban on same-sex marriage is determined to be illegal, while the Supreme Court of New Jersey orders lawmakers to recognize same-sex civil unions.

2008: The future of same-sex marriage in California remains a mystery: the highest court overturns the ban on same-sex marriage while voters vote in favor of Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage.

2009: Vermont becomes the second state to legalize same-sex marriage, while the Supreme Court of Iowa overturns a state ban.

2010: Same-sex couples gain momentum across the nation:

  • California’s Proposition 8, which was approved by voters, is declared to be Unconstitutional. As a result, the statutory ban on same-sex marriage is void.
  • New Hampshire and Washington D.C. formally recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry.
  • A Massachusetts judge finds that DOMA is Unconstitutional.

2011: New York lawmakers join to pass legislation legalizing same-sex marriage.

2012: The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) receives multiple blows in the federal court system, with judges finding that the law violates the Constitution. Same-sex marriage becomes legal in Washington and Maine.

2013: In response to a voter referendum, Maryland formally legalizes gay marriage 30 years after banning the practice. Illinois, Colorado, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Hawaii, and New Mexico take steps toward the legalization of same-sex marriage.

The federal government, through the Department of Treasury, reversed its longtime policy of not recognizing same-sex couples as spouses for federal tax purposes.

2014: Same-sex marriage becomes legal in Kansas, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and South Carolina. A Supreme Court decision effectively reverses bans on same-sex marriage in Indiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, Utah, and Wisconsin.

2015: The Supreme Court of the United States holds that same-sex couples have the right to get married and enjoy the privileges of that marriage in the United States. The sweeping decision overturned bans on same-sex marriage that were still in place in 14 states across the country.

Benefits of Marriage in the United States

For decades, same-sex couples have been fighting for the right to get married. Why is extending the right of marriage to same-sex couples important? First, you could say that the right to get married, for some, was simply a matter of principle. All individuals, regardless of sexual orientation, should have the ability to exercise the same rights and privileges. Preventing some people from getting married was, in the simplest terms, discriminatory and unfair.

Second, marriage comes with many benefits. Refusing to recognize that same-sex couples were legally married stripped them of many rights and privileges extended to heterosexual couples. In many cases, these rights are crucial for legal matters concerning family, taxation, property, and health.

Benefits of marriage in the United States include those concerning:

  • Spousal rights re: pension and retirement benefits
  • Retirement planning
  • Probate and inheritance
  • Taxation of income
  • Estate planning
  • Divorce, child custody, and family support
  • Adoption
  • Access to personal and medical records, and
  • Healthcare.

Today, all Americans, regardless of where they live, have the lawful right to get married to another person, regardless of gender. No state can pass a law that violates this Constitutional right. However, it is still important to remain vigilant and aware of any laws that may diminish the equal rights of the LGBT community. Many states still disagree with the extension of marital rights to same-sex couples and may try to prevent such unions.