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Missouri couples rejoice as U.S. Supreme Court upholds their right to marry

Arlene Zarembka and Zuleyma Tang-Martinez got married in Canada in 2005.
Sarah Kellogg | St. Louis Public Radio

In a resounding victory for the rights of same-sex couples, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the U.S. Constitution requires states to issue marriage licenses to those couples.

In a 5-4 decision with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing for the majority, the high court held that "[t]he fundamental liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices defining personal identity and beliefs."

"To say that today is historic is an understatement," said A.J. Bockleman, the executive director of the advocacy group PROMO. "Many people have labored to see this day become a reality. It is a reminder that our movement for justice and equality is built over time, vote by vote; case by case and through heart to heart conversations."  

“The Supreme Court of the United States has finally welcomed same-sex couples fully into the American family,” said Tony Rothert the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.” Gay and lesbian couples and their families will now be able to have the peace of mind that they can participate in the dignity of marriage, just like different-sex couples here.”

The ACLU has spearheaded the legal fight in the state, challenging not only the constitutional ban on marriage, but also seeking to force Missouri to recognize marriages performed in other states. They had succeeded at the state and federal levels in all the cases.

Arlene Zarembka and her wife Zuleyma Tang-Martinez got married in Canada in 2005, and were one of 10 couples in a Kansas City-area suit seeking to have their licenses recognized.

“We are absolutely thrilled to have the decision today,” Tang-Martinez said. “It is a confirmation of liberty and freedom and dignity in this country. It is a very welcome decision.”

Zarembka said she was a “criminal” when she came out in 1976.

“To go from that to now having our marriages recognized and allowed in all states on the union is just phenomenal. We won, and it’s just fantastic.”

“This weekend, we will have the mother of all pride celebrations,” said Tang-Martinez, with the understatement of the day.

But the decision on Obergefell vs. Hodges only goes so far, Rothert said.

“There are wider civil rights problems that face us as a city, as a state, as a country,” he said. “Now, in Missouri, you can get married on Saturday but fired on Monday for being a gay man, or denied an apartment on Tuesday for being a lesbian.

Rothert said he did not know what impact the Supreme Court’s decision would have on the political momentum to pass a statewide non-discrimination ordinance. Fifteen Missouri counties and municipalities already have their own local non-discrimination ordinances.

In his ruling, Justice Kennedy made it clear that churches and other religious organizations retained their First Amendment right to teach their religious principles. Bishop Edward Rice, the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said he hoped it was more than a nod to religious freedom.

"Our secondary institutions, like schools, hospitals, that maybe wouldn't be considered directly connected to the church itself that they would not be able to claim religious liberty in areas like hiring," Rice said. "In our Catholic schools for example, with the teaching of religion and the reaching of our faith, we would be required to hire people that would not be of the same mind as us."

Rice said he was "saddened" by the ruling, but called it an opportunity for the Catholic church to engage people on the dignity of marriage.

Missouri history

The case brings clarity to Missouri, which has been a patchwork following a number of 2014 court rulings. Here is a brief history:

  • In 2004, the state's voters approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage with 70 percent of the vote. 
  • In 2013,the state Supreme Court ruled that the partner of a state Highway Patrol officer who was killed in the line of duty was ineligible for survivor benefits. The case did not directly challenge the state's ban on same-sex marriage.
  • That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Gov. Jay Nixon issued an executive order requiring the state Department of Revenue to accept jointly filed returns from legally married same-sex couples.
  • In June 2014, Mayor Francis Slay, in a direct challenge to the state's ban, married four same-sex couples at City Hall. Attorney General Chris Koster sued to uphold the amendment. 
    State Auditor Nicole Galloway delivered a scathing audit to St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Sharon Carpenter.
    Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
    St. Louis recorder of deeds Sharon Carpenter, the day after Mayor Francis Slay married four same-sex couples at City Hall in 2014.
  • In October 2014, Jackson County judge J. Dale Youngs ruled in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union that the state had to recognize same-sex marriages performed out of state. Koster did not appeal that ruling.

One of the couples in that case, Jim MacDonald and Andy Schuerman, said it was "gratifying that now other same-sex couples will be able to enjoy the emotional, legal and financial security that marriage has given our family and, in particular, our young daughter."

  • On Nov. 5, 2014, St. Louis circuit judge Rex Burlison ruled that Missouri’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Koster immediately appealed that ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court, though he did not seek to block the city from issuing licenses. St. Louis County began issuing licenses that day to same-sex couples.
  • Two days later a federal judge from the Western District of Missouri, Ortrie Smith, reached the same conclusion as Burlison – that Missouri’s same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional.  Though Smith stayed his ruling, St. Louis and St. Louis County continued to issue licenses, and Jackson County officials began to do so as well.


Attorney General Chris Koster had appealed the state and federal court decisions. His office on Friday asked for those appeals to be dropped.

PROMO said about 500 same-sex couples received licenses in the past seven months. They expected the remaining 112 counties to start issuing licenses with all deliberate speed.

In Illinois, gay marriage has been legal for about a year.

Officials with the St. Charles County recorder of deeds said they were waiting for a legal opinion before they issued licenses. The Jefferson County recorder of deeds was out of the office, and officials there said they were waiting for direction from her before issuing licenses. The Franklin County recorder of deeds said they would be issuing licenses to any couple who asks, while officials in Lincoln County said they would likely not issue licenses to same-sex couples as the recorder of deeds was out of the office.

In Lewis County, Amy Parrish, the recorder of deeds, said she was waiting on official notice. Marion County Recorder of Deeds Harla Freisz said she is waiting to hear from the county prosecutor before issuing licenses to same-sex couples, but expects to be told to issue licenses by the end of the day.

Political reaction

In a statement, Attorney General Koster applauded the Supreme Court for its "courage and strong sense of fairness."

"Missourians should be seen as equals under the law; regardless of their gender, race, or whom they love," he said."

Koster is also the leading Democratic candidate for governor. He has always made a clear distinction between his personal support for same-sex marriage and his need to defend the laws of the state.

The decision also received a favorable reaction from Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who opposed same sex marriage until 2013. He said in a statement the decision “is a major victory for equality and an important step toward a fairer and more just society for all Americans."

“No one should be discriminated against because of who they are or who they love,” Nixon said. “In the coming days, I will be taking all necessary and appropriate actions to ensure this decision is implemented throughout the state of Missouri."

U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said the decision “affirms the fundamental constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law for every American, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity."

"No one has the right to tell someone else who they can love. And no one has the right to define someone else’s family,” Clay said. “This decision is a major advance for civil rights and a victory for millions of LGBT Americans who deserve the freedom to marry and to have that life commitment legally recognized in every state."

But not everybody was celebrating Friday’s ruling. Missouri Family Policy Council President Joe Ortwerth called the decision "a reckless ruling that will have a devastating impact on the future of our nation."

“This disgraceful decision is the latest, most evident sign of the moral bankruptcy of the U.S. government, the moral corruption of its leaders, the vile decadence of American culture and society, and the growing Godlessness of the American people,” said Ortwerth, a former St. Charles County executive. “As a result of this atrocious ruling, God's design for marriage and the family has now been fully perverted, and the sacred institution of marriage has been legally transformed into an abomination." 

Other Missouri politicians sounded off on the decision through social media:

State Sen. Scott Sifton, a Democratic candidate for attorney general:

Former state House speaker Tim Jones, a Republican

U.S Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from the Kansas City area

Jolie Justus, the first openly gay Missouri state Senator who is now serving on the Kansas City City Council

State Rep. Mike Colona, a south city Democrat who is also openly gay

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.