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Religious Tolerance logo

Same-sex marriage (SSM)

U.S. and Canadian milestones on the
multiple-decade path towards
marriage equality.

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Some "firsts" in the history of the struggle towards marriage equality -- mostly in the U.S.:

  • Marriage has been redefined four times in the past history of North America:

  • 1865: At the end of the civil war, former slaves were allowed to freely marry for the first time.

  • 1905: This was the approximate date when the last state law was repealed that had forbidden couples from marrying if both spouses were profoundly deaf.

  • 2001: The first same-sex couples who were married in modern times anywhere in the world were married in Toronto, Canada even though same-sex couples were unable to obtain marriage licenses there at the time. They bypassed the usual procedure of obtaining a marriage license by having a reading of the banns in a church on three Sundays before their wedding. The Government of Ontario refused to register their subsequent wedding. However, two years later, after same-sex marriages became legal in the Province, the government retroactively recognized their marriages as legal.

  • 2004: Same-sex couples in Massachusetts were able to purchase marriage licenses starting on 2004-MAY-17. By the tenth anniversary of this event, 18 additional U.S. states and the District of Columbia had legalized SSMs.
  • The first U.S. religious denomination to promote LGBT rights:

1970: The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is a liberal faith group. Their General Assembly passed a resolution to oppose laws which criminalized same-gender sexual activity, which discriminated against lesbians and gays in employment, and which restricted US government issuance of security clearances, visas, citizenships etc. to lesbians and gays. This led to the creation of a UUA Office on Gay Affairs in 1973. More details.

  • The first court to rule that prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying was a form of discrimination:

1993: The Supreme Court of Hawaii issued its ruling in Baehr v. Lewitt that to exclude same-sex couples from being able to marry is a form of discrimination. The Supreme Court returned the case to the trial court, asking that the latter determine if such discrimination can be justified by the state. More details.

  • The first full trial on the constitutionality of marriage by same-sex couples:

1996: The state trial court in Hawaii held a full trial, hearing expert witnesses testify about the reasons why the State of Hawaii denies marriage to same-sex couples. The trial court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to be married, but higher courts reversed the ruling.

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  • The first federal law to specifically limit the rights of same-sex married couples.

1996: The Defense of Marriage Act was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton (D). This law terminated a principle that had been in place since the founding of the United States: that the federal government granted benefits, obligations and protections to all legally married couples and to their children throughout the U.S. Section 3 of this act required the federal government to ignore married same-sex couples. This legislation had no immediate effect because no legal same-sex marriages had been solemnized in the country. More details.

  • The first U.S. state to amend its constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage:

1998: The voters in Hawaii passed a referendum which added a clause to its Constitution giving the state Legislature the power to legalize or ban same-sex marriages in the state. This had the effect of banning such marriages because the Hawaiian statutes already reserved marriage to opposite-sex couples. More details.

  • The first same-sex couples in the world in modern times to marry and have the government recognize their marriage as legitimate:

2001-JAN-14: In much of Canada, couples can marry without a marriage license. They can choose to have a minister, pastor, priest or other member of the clergy perform a "reading of the banns" in church for three consecutive weeks announcing an upcoming marriage. This makes a couple eligible to be married in the congregation on the following week without a state marriage license. Rev. Brent Hawkes read the bans for two same-sex couples at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. They are: Kevin Bourassa to Joe Varnell, and Elaine Vautour to Anne Vautour. The Government of Ontario refused to register the marriages at the time because the couples were of the same sex.

After 2003-JUN-10, when same-sex marriages became legal across Ontario by court order, these two marriages were retroactively recognized by the government of Ontario as valid. More details.

  • The first country in the world in modern times to make marriage available to same-sex couples:

2001-APR Having overcome strong opposition by a number of Christian political parties, the Netherlands opened both marriage and adoption to both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. More details. A decade later, it was discovered that same-sex marriages had a much lower divorce rate than opposite-sex marriages. That is, allowing same-sex couples to marry helped improve the stability of marriages in the country.

  • The first political jurisdiction in North America to legalize same-sex marriages:

2003-JUN-10: The definition of marriage in Ontario was widened by a decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal. They ruled unanimously that same-sex couples of a suitable age can marry. SSM had finally achieved a foothold in one Canadian province. More details.

  • The first political jurisdiction in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriages:

2004-MAY-17: Same-sex couples in Massachusetts were able to purchase marriage licenses starting on this date.

  • When did the first major poll show a majority of U.S. voters in favor of same-sex marriage:

2010-AUG: The national Fox News/Opinion Dynamics  poll was the first major poll to show that most American adults support SSM. Asked whether "gays and lesbians should have a constitutional right to marry..." the results were 52% in favor, 46% opposed; 2% unsure or no response, for a margin of 6 percentage points. More details

  • Where and when was the longest struggle for equal marriage in the U.S.:

During 2013-DEC. civil rights activists in Hawaii concluded a 22 year, 11 month, and 2 week battle for marriage equality . The battle to legalize same-sex marriage began on 1990-DEC-17 when three same-sex couples applied for marriage licenses and were refused. They filed a lawsuit in state court the next year. More details. The struggle ended on 2013-DEC-02 shortly after midnight when the first Hawaiian same-sex couples were married under an amended state marriage law. More details.

  • What percentage of North Americans live where same-sex marriage is available by mid-2014?

In mid-2014, about 44.5% of adult U.S. same-sex couples and 100% of adult Canadian same-sex couples of adequate age and not too closely related could marry. Using the definition of "North America" that includes just the U.S. and Canada, then about 50% of adult same-sex couples could marry in mid-2014. Whether it is actually a majority is difficult to estimate because the populations of individual states and of both countries are only estimates.

  • When did marriage theoretically become available everywhere in Canada and the U.S.:
    • In Canada, during the evening of 2005-JUN-28, federal Bill C-38 passed its final vote in the House of Commons. The vote was close: 158 to 133. On 2005-JUL-19, the bill passed its final vote in the Senate by a vote of 47 to 21, with three abstentions. It was signed into law on 2005-JUL-20 by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and became effective immediately. The Governor General, who usually proclaims legislation, was incapacitated at the time for medical reasons.

    • In the U.S., during 2015-JUN-26, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case Obergefell v. Hodges. The Justices of the High Court found same-sex marriage to be guaranteed by the due process and equal access protection clauses of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

  • When were same-sex couples able to go to their local courthouse, pick up marriage licenses, and subsequently marry:
    • In Canada, same-sex couples could marry in nine of ten provinces and all three territories on 2005-JUL-20. The only holdout was Prince Edward Island on the East coast. The provincial government claimed that they did not know how to implement the federal law. A few weeks later, they quickly figured out how to do it after a lesbian couple threatened to sue.

    • In the U.S., as of early 2017, qualified same-sex couples still cannot obtain marriage licenses locally in some areas of the United States:
      • Some Native American tribes are considered sovereign nations; they are not bound by the High Court's rulings. Some refuse to marry same-sex couples.

      • Most people in the Territory of American Samoa are considered American Residents, and not American Citizens. Thus, rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court do not necessarily apply there. The territorial government has not yet allowed the issuance of marriage licenses to qualified same-sex couples. It will probably be necessary for one or more couples to launch a court case to force the Territory to issue marriage license. Alternately, they might marry elsewhere, return to American Samoa and attempt to have their marriage recognized.

      • Of the 3,144 counties and county equivalents, qualified same-sex couples can obtain a marriage license locally in 3,135 of them as of 2016-OCT. In the state of Alabama, nine counties refuse to issue marriage licenses to any couples -- same-sex or opposite-sex. However, couples can simply drive to an adjacent county, and obtain a license there.

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Copyright © 2014 to 2017by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance 
Originally written: 2014-JUN-19
Latest update: 2017-JAN-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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