The United States joined Ireland yesterday as one of 23 countries in the world where same sex marriage is legal nationwide.

In a 5 – 4 vote, the US Supreme Court ruled that same sex marriage is a right, protected by the Constitution.

On the dissenting side were Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas.

On the side of the majority, in favor, were Justices Sonya Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Anthony Kennedy.

With that ruling, same sex marriage became legalized in the 13 states where it was still banned. Justice Kennedy, a 78-year-old Irish Catholic from Sacramento, California, authored the ruling. The very last paragraph gained particular attention for the emotional chord it struck and was heard round the world yesterday as the news went viral. Kennedy wrote:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.

“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them this right.”

In the lead-up to the Supreme Court’s decision, Kennedy, who was appointed in 1988 by Republican president Ronald Reagan, has been hailed as an unlikely champion of gay rights, with many wondering where in his Irish Catholic, post-WWII California upbringing he might have found the inspiration.

Recent articles, including  pieces by the New York Times and the Associated Press, suggest that a former mentor in California, Gordon Schaber, a political consultant and dean of the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, where Kennedy taught, lived out his years as a closeted gay man.

Prior to today’s historic ruling Kennedy counted three momentous gay rights opinions among his legacy: the 1996 Romer v. Evans, which struck down a Colorado constitutional amendment that prevented local governments from legislating anti-discrimination laws for homosexuals; 2003’s Lawrence v. Texas, meant that gay sex acts could no longer be crimes under state law; and 2013’s US v. Windsor, which opened the doors for federal same sex marriage legislation.     

Justice Anthony KennedyWikimedia