Thomas Tees Up Future Challenges to Obergefell

Joe Sullivan, CLS ’22

It has been five years since the Supreme Court’s historic marriage equality ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.[1]  However, on the first day of the Supreme Court’s 2020-2021 term, two conservative justices voiced their continued disapproval of Obergefell.  Kim Davis, a county clerk from Kentucky, petitioned for a writ of certiorari for her case against one of the gay couples to whom she denied a marriage license in the wake of Obergefell.[2]  The court denied Davis’ petition, but included a statement on its denial from Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, that alarmed LGBTQ+ Americans and allies.


Justice Thomas, who joined Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissent in Obergefell,[3] wrote that, “Davis may have been one of the first victims of th[e] Court’s cavalier treatment of religion in its Obergefell decision, but she will not be the last.”[4]  Justice Thomas opined that a legislative solution would have been preferable to the Court “bypass[ing] that democratic process.”[5]  Finally, Thomas’ statement ended with a possible ultimatum: “By choosing to privilege a novel constitutional right over the religious liberty interests explicitly protected in the First Amendment, and by doing so undemocratically, the Court has created a problem that only it can fix.”[6]


Is Justice Thomas’ statement an implicit call for plaintiffs to bring new religious liberty challenges to Obergefell?  It is too early to tell, but the prospect of such challenges facing a majority-conservative Court (should the Senate confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination) has been enough to cause legal analysts to question the security of LGBTQ+ Americans’ right to marry.[7]


Should the Court overrule Obergefell and resort to legislative solutions, it is possible that these statutes will be subject to religious liberty challenges raised under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).[8] The RFRA requires the government to show that it is burdening a religion only if it furthers a compelling interest, and is the least restrictive means of furtherance.[9]  RFRA-based challenges to marriage equality statutes, if successful, could potentially dilute LGBTQ+ American’s right to marry, making it conditional on a least-restrictive application.  While this standard is heightened, it is not impossible to overcome.[10]  However, the added burden on the government could potentially usher in an erosion of some freedoms for which LGBTQ+ Americans have fought.

[1] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015).

[2] Michael C. Dorf, In Gratuitously Attacking Marriage Equality, Clarence Thomas Accidentally Raised an Important Question About the Scope of Religious Liberty, Verdict (Oct. 14, 2020),

[3] 576 U.S. at 686.

[4] Davis v. Ermold, No. 19-926, slip op. at 2 (U.S. Oct. 5, 2020).

[5] Id. at 1.

[6] Id. at 4.

[7] See Joan Biskupic, With court in flux, Thomas and Alito attack same-sex marriage ruling, CNN (Oct. 5, 2020, 6:16 PM),; Dorf, supra note 2; Adam Liptak, Justices Thomas and Alito Question Same-Sex Marriage Precedent, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2020),

[8] 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1.

[9] Id.

[10] See, e.g., U.S. v. Wilgus, 638 F.3d 1274 (10th Cir. 2011) (holding that the government met the RFRA’s least restrictive means standard in criminalizing possession of eagle feathers without a proper permit).