On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that same-sex couples have the right to marry, and newspapers across the country declared that gay couples could now exercise this right in all 50 states. While the Obergefell decision was an important moment in history and a significant victory for the LGBT movement, it was not an immediate and complete change in policy. Rather, the change emerged slowly over decades from numerous complex interactions among federal, state, and local governmental actors. These same actors continue to influence marriage equality even after the Supreme Court’s historic ruling.
A careful consideration of the path of marriage equality demonstrates the importance of federalism in the evolution of policy in the U.S. context. Not only does the extent of federal involvement influence state decision-making, but state policies also respond to the policymaking processes in other states. Examining the progression of marriage rights for same-sex couples also illustrates how variation in state government institutions shape policy outcomes in the U.S. system. For example, aspects of state courts such as judicial capacity influence the nature of state policy responses on the issue of gay marriage. Finally, focusing on marriage equality provides an opportunity to consider how institutions of government and political actors strategically interact to influence the policymaking process. For example, advocacy coalitions make strategic choices to focus on levels and institutions of government that are more responsive to their interests. Overall, same-sex marriage policy and the scholarship that investigates it highlight the complex and sometimes convoluted development that characterizes the policymaking process on many important issues in American politics and society.