The Supreme Court declared today that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the United States, including states like Tennessee that have banned the practice.
Gay and lesbian couples already can marry in 36 states and the District of Columbia. The court's 5-4 ruling means the remaining 14 states, in the South and Midwest, will have to stop enforcing their bans on same-sex marriage.
The Tennessee Equality Project issued a statement celebrating the ruling, saying that "now couples can get married in Tennessee and couples who have been legally married for years in other jurisdictions will have their marriages recognized here."
The group called on state government and Tennessee's 95 county clerks, who issue marriage licenses, "to stop enforcing the Tennessee-voter approved ban on same-sex marriage that was passed in 2006.
In a statement, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said "the people of Tennessee have recently voted clearly on this issue," but said the Supreme Court's decision means the state "will comply with the decision and will ensure that our departments are able to do so as quickly as possible."
He told reporters on Thursday that Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery would issue a legal opinion at 2 p.m. Central time to county clerks providing them guidance on the Supreme Court ruling.
Read the Supreme Court's opinion overturning bans on gay marriageView
But clerks were previously directed by the University of Tennessee's County Advisory Service that they could begin issuing licenses immediately after the Court's ruling. Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles said he wouldl comply with that directive and begin issuing licenses immediately.
In Georgia, a member of the Administrative Office of the Courts sent all probate court judges an email at 10 a.m. Friday telling them to hold off on issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. At least for a couple hours.
But Attorney General Sam Olens has since issued a directive to all local government offices, saying they are now required to issue licenses to same-sex couples, and marriage licenses are now required and calling for agencies to "immediately review their practices."
In Dade County, Probate Court Judge Kerri Carter said at noon Friday that no gay couples had requested a license yet. But if they did, her software had been updated to print out a different description.
Instead of reading "Bride" and "Groom" where the couple would write their two names, the options now said "Applicant 1" and "Applicant 2."
Catoosa County had also not seen any gay marriage applicants as of Friday afternoon.
In Alabama, Attorney General Luther Strange acknowledged that the ruling was now the law of the land, but said he expected "the focus will now turn to the exercise of one's religious liberty."
"I will continue to defend the religious liberties of Alabamians and ensure that people and businesses honoring their religious beliefs are protected," Strange said.
In DeKalb County, Ala., Probate Judge Ronnie Osburn declined to comment on the ruling.
"He's already said he's not going to talk to anybody today," Osburn's assistant told a reporterFriday afternoon.
But minutes after the ruling around 9:30 a.m. Friday, the assistant said, a lesbian couple applied for a marriage license.
Kat Cooper, the co-chair of the Tennessee Equality Project who lives in Collegedale, grew emotional as she realized the full implications of the decision.
"So many of us...We fought this for so long," she said. "Today is just an monumental day. To see people to display your love like other couples, to be validated like that — I can't explain that feeling."
Meanwhile, conservative leaders decried the decision, calling it an assault on traditional marriage.
"Today a handful of Americans on the Court have stripped the people of the freedom to democratically address the meaning and role of society's most fundamental institution, marriage," said former state Sen. David Fowler, who as a Republican lawmaker from Signal Mountain spearheaded the movement to pass a 2006 amendment to the state constitution banning such recognition.
Fowler, who now heads the socially conservative Family Action Council of Tennessee, charged "the majority have arrogantly said they are not only smarter than the 50 million Americans who have voted to affirm marriage as the union of a man and a woman, but also millions of human beings over thousands of years across the entire globe."
Some church leaders also lamented the decision, advocating the position that traditional marriage is foundational to society.
"I am deeply saddened by the decision because no human institution has the authority to redefine what God in His infinite wisdom has established," said Randy C. Davis, executive director and treasurer of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. "Likewise, the fact that the Supreme Court ruled in this manner in no way impacts God's high standard and continued expectation of marriage between one man and one women," Davis said.
Leaders from other churches, however, said they would be willing to officiate same-sex marriage ceremonies as soon as they were legal.
The outcome is the culmination of two decades of Supreme Court litigation over marriage, and gay rights generally.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, just as he did in the court's previous three major gay rights cases dating back to 1996. It came on the anniversary of two of those earlier decisions.
"No union is more profound than marriage," Kennedy wrote, joined by the court's four more liberal justices.
The ruling will not take effect immediately because the court gives the losing side roughly three weeks to ask for reconsideration. But some state officials and county clerks might decide there is little risk in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The cases before the court involved laws from Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Those states have not allowed same-sex couples to marry within their borders and they also have refused to recognize valid marriages from elsewhere.
Just two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down part of the federal anti-gay marriage law that denied a range of government benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
The decision in United States v. Windsor did not address the validity of state marriage bans, but courts across the country, with few exceptions, said its logic compelled them to invalidate state laws that prohibited gay and lesbian couples from marrying.
The number of states allowing same-sex marriage has grown rapidly. As recently as October, just over one-third of the states permitted same-sex marriage.
There are an estimated 390,000 married same-sex couples in the United States, according to UCLA's Williams Institute, which tracks the demographics of gay and lesbian Americans. Another 70,000 couples living in states that do not currently permit them to wed would get married in the next three years, the institute says. Roughly 1 million same-sex couples, married and unmarried, live together in the United States, the institute says.
The Obama administration backed the right of same-sex couples to marry. The Justice Department's decision to stop defending the federal anti-marriage law in 2011 was an important moment for gay rights and President Barack Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage in 2012.
Staff writers Joy Lukachick Smith and Tyler Jett also contributed to this report.
Area officials, groups react to Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision
Reactions from public officials and advocacy groups on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down bans on same-sex marriage have been swift.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke
On Twitter, the mayor quoted Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion: "No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family," followed by the hashtag #LoveWins.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said that "the people of Tennessee have recently voted clearly on this issue. The Supreme Court has overturned that vote. We will comply with the decision and will ensure that our departments are able to do so as quickly as possible."
Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey
Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey called the decision "an unfortunate and fundamentally wrong opinion. In 2006, not even a decade ago, over 80 percent of Tennessee voters issued a strong mandate in favor of traditional marriage. Today, the Supreme Court declared that mandate null and void."
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery
"Today's United States Supreme Court decision not only changes the definition of marriage, but takes from states and their citizens the longstanding authority to vote and decide what marriage means.
To the Tennessee citizen who asks 'Don't we get a chance to vote on this in some way?' The answer from the Supreme Court is a resounding, 'No you do not,".'
"For the Court to tell all Tennesseans that they have no voice, no right to vote, on these issues is dissappointing
The Court, nevertheless, has spoken and we respect its decision.
Our office is prepared to work with the governor and the Federal Assembly, as needed, to take the necessary steps to implement the decision."
Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles
Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles said, "A public official in many instances may hold a different view regarding laws and court actions. Ours is an administrative office, and legal sources advise we don't have the ability to choose which duties to perform."
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said, "While I believe that this issue should be decided by the states and by legislatures, not the federal judiciary, I also believe in the rule of law. The state of Georgia is subject to the laws of the United States, and we will follow them."
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini said that "with today's decision we see that love and respect has triumphed and we rejoice knowing that every person has the right to marry the person they love. Today is a day that Democrats celebrate with those couples as they build strong families while securing a future for themselves, in Tennessee and across our nation."
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes said, "Tennesseans overwhelmingly voted to define marriage as between one man and one woman. If a change was to be made, it should have been allowed to play out through the democratic process but, unfortunately, today's judicial activism short-circuits that ability. While this has long been pushed by the Democrats' agenda, the issue is far from settled."
Georgia Democratic Party Chairman DuBose Porter
"Today is a huge victory not only for advocates of marriage equality, but advocates of basic civil rights. This decision is the culmination of decades' worth of battles fought to ensure that all families and the love they share are protected and treated equally under the law.
"While we have plenty of reason to celebrate, we still have work to do in Georgia. Until we have employment non-discrimination legislation on the books, LGBT workers can be fired just for being who they are. Our cities and counties have led the way on this issue, but the state remains on the wrong side of history. Love should never be a fireable offense, and I encourage state leaders to work together to forge a more equal and just Georgia."
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange acknowledged the ruling was now the law of the land, but said he expected "the focus will now turn to the exercise of one's religious liberty. I will continue to defend the religious liberties of Alabamians and ensure that people and businesses honoring their religious beliefs are protected."
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said the Supreme Court ruled the Constitution "does not permit bans on same-sex marriage. In our system of government, the Supreme Court bears the ultimate responsibility for determining the constitutionality of our laws. Once the Supreme Court has ruled, its order is the law of the land. As such, Georgia will follow the law and adhere to the ruling of the Court."
Tennessee Equality Project
The Tennessee Equality Project said "we celebrate today's Supreme Court ruling striking down state bans on the marriages of same-gender couples" and called on state government and Tennessee's 95 county clerks, who issue marriage licenses, to stop enforcing the ban. "There is no legal authority for denying or delaying equal protection of the law for these couples," the statement said.
Focus on the Family's Jim Daly
Jim Daly with Focus on the Family said that "although this result was predicted by many observers, the action of the Court is nonetheless startling in its rejection of a societal understanding of marriage that goes back to the dawn of civilization. Ultimately, however, no court can change the eternal truth that marriage is, and always has been, between a man and a woman."
Tennessee Pastors Network
The president of the Tennessee Pastors Network said the same-sex marriage ruling "puts churches and pastors in a difficult position." By declaring marriage a fundamental right, the Supreme Court is "stripping states and voters of their rights to make their own marriage decisions," said TPN President Dale Walters.
"This landmark decision had deep biblical, historical and constitutional roots, and unfortunately, our justices chose to redefine marriage for the entire nation, ignoring other constitutional rights and opening the door to a dangerous infringement on religious liberties," Walker said.
"The fact that this issue even made it to the Supreme Court of the United States was an indictment against American Christians and against American churches. Even though some churches have sought to blend into the culture rather than change it, this ruling serves as a wake-up call for pastors and churches who are committed to being the salt and light of our society and standing up for truth."
Hedy Weinberg, Tennessee ACLU executive director
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said "We applaud the governor and the attorney general for ensuring that government offices in Tennessee implement the Supreme Court's ruling swiftly. Committed, same-sex couples in Tennessee have waited long enough to enjoy the dignity and protections of marriage. Today's ruling and its prompt implementation will bring great joy to the thousands of Tennessee families who just want to be treated with the same respect and dignity as everyone else."
Former Tennessee Sen. David Fowler
Former Tennessee Sen. David Fowler, now with the Family Action Council of Tennessee, said that "today a handful of Americans on the Court have stripped the people of the freedom to democratically address the meaning and role of society's most fundamental institution, marriage. He predicted that "when people begin to experience the effects of this ruling in ways they never envisioned, the Court may find that it has only awakened a slumbering giant."
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.
"Love and equality win. I'm glad the Supreme Court ruled on the right side of history."
Tennessee Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Murfreesboro
Tennessee state Rep. Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Murfreesboro, and Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, said they are drafting a "Tennessee Pastor Protection Act." Terry said the intent is to "protect all religious clergy from performing same-sex marriages, as well as providing legal protection from being forced to perform same-sex marriages on church property."