Same-sex marriage as a human right: How the Strasbourg Court could draw inspiration from the US Supreme Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to affirm marriage equality




Private and family life, human rights, same-sex marriage, European Court of Human Rights, Supreme Court of the United States, Inter-American Court of Human Rights


In the last fifteen years, the European Court, the US Supreme Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have all ruled on the issue of same-sex marriage. The Strasbourg Court has not, at this stage, dared to affirm the right to marriage, unlike its (inter)American counterparts. The article proposes a comparative analysis of the decisions rendered by the three jurisdictions: it highlights, beyond the (obvious and indisputable) differences between the three legal orders, the similar issues – of applicability, proportionality and subsidiarity – with which the judges responsible for ensuring respect for human rights are confronted. As the analysis also reveals, these issues are sometimes hotly debated within the courts themselves, while their understanding can be enriched by inter-jurisdictional dialogue. In conclusion, it is argued that, with regard to the recognition and protection of same-sex couples, the European Court should draw inspiration from American experiences and (1) clearly (re)affirm that the right to marry (art. 12 ECHR) applies to same-sex couples (2) mobilise the full potential of the prohibition of discrimination (art. 14 ECHR) and (3) move away from strict adherence to the European consensus rule.


Download data is not yet available.


Views 3198
14(1)_Willems_OSLS 478
XML_14(1)_Willems_OSLS 114

Author Biography

Geoffrey Willems, Catholic University of Louvain

Geoffrey Willems is Professor of Family Law at UCLouvain. Since his PhD thesis defended in 2014, he has specialized in international and comparative family law. He has been a visiting scholar in the UK and the US and is particularly interested in how human rights judges influence family law. He has led major collaborative research projects, including an international project on adult-child relationships (Adults and Children in postmodern Societies, Intersentia, 2019) and - most recently - a project on the leading cases on the right to respect for family life (Les grands arrêts du droit au respect de la vie familiale, Larcier, 2022). Since 2020, he is Vice-Dean of the UCLouvain law faculty.  


Abrusci, E., 2018. The IACtHR Advisory Opinion: one step forward or two steps back for LGBTI rights in Costa Rica? EJIL: Talk! [online], 27 February. Available at:

Annicchino, P., 2010. How Wide is the Margin? The United States Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights on Religion in Public Schools. Annuaire Droit et Religions, 301–323.

Ansuátegui Roig, F.J., 2016. Human Rights and judicial dialogue between America and Europe: toward a new model of law? The Age of Human Rights Journal [online], 6, 24–41. Available at:

Ash, E., and Chen, D.L., 2018. What Kind of Judge Is Brett Kavanaugh? Cardozo Law Review [online], 70–100. Available at:

Bailey, M.A., and Maltzman, F., 2008. Does legal doctrine matter? Unpacking law and policy preferences on the US Supreme Court. American Political Science Review, 102(3), 369–384.

Beschle, D.L., 2017. No More Tiers: Proportionality as an Alternative to Multiple Levels of Scrutiny in Individual Rights Cases. Pace Law Review [online], 38(2), 384–436. Available at:

Black, R.C., Owens, R.J., and Brookhart, J.L., 2016. We Are the World: The US Supreme Court’s Use of Foreign Sources of Law. British Journal of Political Science, 46(4), 891–913.

Book note: Justice Thomas’s Inconsistent Originalism. Harvard Law Review, 121(5), 1431–1438.

Bribosia, E., and Rorive, I., 2018. L’arrêt Coman : Quand la Cour de justice contribue à la reconnaissance du mariage homosexuel. Journal de droit européen, 344–347.

Bribosia, E., Rorive, I., and Van den Eynde, L., 2014. Same-Sex Marriage: Building an Argument before the European Court of Human Rights in Light of the US Experience. Berkeley Journal of International Law [online], 32(1), 1–43. Available at:

Burgorgue-Larsen, L., 2014. El contexto, las técnicas y las consecuencias de la interpretación de la Convención Americana de los Derechos Humanos. Estudios constitucionales [online], 12(1), 105–162. Available at:

Calabresi, M., and Von Drehle, D., 2012. The Decider. Time. 18 June.

Calabresi, S.G., and Bickford, L.D., 2014. Federalism and subsidiarity: Perspectives from US constitutional law. Nomos, 55, 76–78.

Carlier, J.Y., 2019. Vers un ordre public européen des droits fondamentaux: l’exemple de la reconnaissance des mariages de personnes de même sexe dans l’ârrêt Coman (obs. sous CJUE, Gde Ch., arrêt Coman, 5 juin 2018). Revue trimestrielle des droits de l’homme [online], no. 1, 220. Available at:

Carrillo-Santarelli, N., 2018a. Gender identity, and equality and non-discrimination of same sex couples: Advisory Opinion OC-24/17. The American Journal of International Law, 112(3), 479–485.

Celorio, R.M., 2012. The case of Karen Atala and daughters: Toward a better understanding of discrimination, equality, and the rights of women. City University of New-York Law Review [online], 15, 335. Available at:

Cismas, I., and Cammarano, S., 2016. Whose Right and Who’s Right: The US Supreme Court v the European Court of Human Rights on Corporate Exercise of Religion. Boston University International Law Journal [online], 34(1), 1–44. Available at:

Council of Europe, 2016. Dialogue across the Atlantic: Selected Case-Law of the European and Inter-American Human Rights Courts [online]. Oisterwijk: Wolf Legal. Available at:

Cruz Rosel, Á., and Escoffié Duarte, C.L., 2018. ¿Es vinculante la opinión consultiva 24/17, sobre derechos LGBTI, de la Corte Interamericana? Nexos [online], 05–20, 23 January. Available at:

de Bellescize, R., 2020. Nous sommes le Monde: la Cour suprême des États-Unis et l’emploi du droit étranger. Revue francaise de droit constitutionnel, 2(122), 437–458.

Dermine, P., 2015. Les neuf juges et le mariage homosexuel. Un bref commentaire de l’arrêt Obergefell v Hodges de la Cour Supreme des Etats-Unis (26 juin 2015). Revue belge de Droit constitutionnel, 4, 455–469.

Draghici, C., 2017. The Legitimacy of Family Rights in Strasbourg Case-Law. Oxford: Hart.

Dzehtsiarou, K., and O’Mahony, C., 2013. Evolutive interpretation of rights provisions: A comparison of the European Court of Human Rights and the US Supreme Court. Columbia Human Rights Law Review, 44, 309.

Fenwick, H., and Hayward, A., 2017, Rejecting asymmetry of access to formal relationship statuses for same and different-sex couples at Strasbourg and domestically, European Human Rights Law Review, 6, 544-563.

Flanders, C., and Oliveira, S., 2019. An Incomplete Masterpiece. UCLA Law Review [online], 24. Available at:

Flores, A.R., and Barclay, S., 2016. Backlash, consensus, legitimacy, or polarization: The effect of same-sex marriage policy on mass attitudes. Political Research Quarterly, 69(1), 43–56.

Garlicki, L., 2013. Universalism v Regionalism? The role of the above national judicial dialogue. In: J. Garcia Roca et al., eds. El diálogo entre los sistemas europeo y americano de derechos humanos.

Gianella and Wilson, B.M., 2016. LGBTI rights. In: J.F. Gonzalez-Bertomeu and R. Gargarella, eds., The Latin American Casebook: Courts, Constitutions, and rights. Abingdon: Routledge.

Giannino, D., 2019. Are we looking up or are we looking out? The transnational constitutionalism of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights: conventionality control and the fight against impunity. Transnational Legal Theory [online], 10(1), 6–29. Available at:

Gorod, B.J., 2016. Sam Alito: The Courts Most Consistent Conservative Forum Collection: Justice Alito: A Decade on the Court. Yale Law Journal Forum [online], vol. 126, 362–373. Available at:

Hawkins, D., and Jacoby, W., 2010. A Comparison of the European and Inter-American Courts of Human Rights. Journal of International Law and International Relations, 6(1), 35–86.

Hervieu, N., 2015. Cour européenne des droits de l’homme: De l’art de la résilience juridictionnelle. Revue des droits de l’homme-Actualités Droits-Libertés [online], 16. Available at:

Hochmann, T., 2017. Le mariage est une prison (obs. sous European Court of Human Rights, arrêt Babiarz v Pologne, 10 janvier 2017). Revue trimestrielle des droits de l’homme [online], 1015. Available at:

Hodson, L., 2011. A marriage by any other name? Schalk and Kopf v Austria. Human Rights Law Review, 11(1), 170–179.

Jenart, C., 2017. Rechterlijk activisme in keuze tussen vrijheid en gelijkheid? Vergelijkende rechtspraakanalyse van het US Supreme Court en het EHRM over het huwelijk tussen personen van hetzelfde geslacht. Publiekrechtelijke kronieken, 613.

Johnson, P., and Falcetta, S., 2020. Same sex marriage and Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In: C. Ashford and A. Maine, eds., Research Handbook on Gender, Sexuality and the Law. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 91–103.

Kazyak, E., and Stange, M., 2018. Backlash or a positive response?: Public opinion of LGB issues After Obergefell v Hodges. Journal of homosexuality, 65(14), 2028–2052.

Kiska, R., 2012. Hate Speech: A Comparison between the European Court of Human Rights and the United States Supreme Court Jurisprudence. Regent University Law Review [online], 25(1), 107–152. Available at:

Lau, H., 2013. Rewriting Schalk and Kopf: shifting the locus of deference. In: E. Brems, ed., Diversity and Human Rights: Rewriting Judgments of the ECHR. Cambridge University Press.

Liptak, A., 2018. Brett Kavanaugh, a Conservative Stalwart in Political Fights and on the Bench. The New York Times [online], 9 July. Available at:

Martinón Quintero, R., 2018. El activismo jurisprudencial de la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos. Revista de Derecho Público, 89, 93–124.

Maryland Office of the Attorney General, 2015. The State of Marriage Equality in America [online]. April. Available at:

McGaver, K.M., 2016. Getting Back to Basics: Recognizing and Understanding the Swing Voter on the Supreme Court of the United States. Minnesota Law Review [online], 101(3), 1247–1286. Available at:

Minow, M.L., 2010. The Controversial Status of International and Comparative Law in the United States. Harvard International Law Journal (Online) [online], 3. Available at:

Murray, M., 2016. Obergefell v Hodges and Nonmarriage Inequality. California Law Review, 104(5), 1207.

Neuman, G.L., 2008. Import, export, and regional consent in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. European journal of international law [online], 19(1), 101–123. Available at:

Orentlicher, D., 2018. Politics and the Supreme Court: The Need for Ideological Balance. University of Pittsburgh Law Review, 79, 412.

Partin, K., 2015. The Legal Theory Behind Kim Davis and Same Sex Marriage. University of Miami Law Review [online]. Available at:

Popovic, D., 2008. Prevailing of Judicial Activism over Self-Restraint in the Jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. Creighton Law Review [online], 42(3), 361–396. Available at:

Pou Giménez, F., 2018. Quo Vadis, Inter-American Court? Activism, Backlash and Latin American Constitutionalism. International Journal of Constitutional Law Blog [online], 11 April. Available at:

Ramsey, M.D., 2016. Beyond the Text: Justice Scalia’s Originalism in Practice Federal Courts, Practice & Procedure Symposium: Justice Scalia and the Federal Courts. Notre Dame Law Review [online], 92(5), 1945–1976. Available at:

Rosenfeld, M., 2006. Comparing constitutional review by the European Court of Justice and the U.S. Supreme Court. International Journal of Constitutional Law, 4(4), 620 et seq.

Saez, M., 2019. In the Right Direction: Family Diversity in the Inter-American System of Human Rights. North Carolina Journal of International Law [online], 44(2), 351. Available at:

Schraub, D., 2015. The Siren Song of Strict Scrutiny Symposium: After Obergefell. University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review [online], 84(3), 859–870. Available at:

Shahid, M., 2017. The Right to Same-Sex Marriage: Assessing the European Court of Human Rights’ Consensus-Based Analysis in Recent Judgments concerning Equal Marriage Rights. Erasmus Law Review [online], 10(3), 184–198. Available at:

Siegel, R.B., 2016. Same-Sex Marriage and Backlash: Constitutionalism through the Lens of Consensus and Conflict. Max Weber Lecture Series [online], 04, 4. Available at:

Soley, X., and Steininger, S., 2018. Parting ways or lashing back? Withdrawals, backlash and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. International Journal of Law in Context [online], 14(2), 237–257. Available at:

Sudre, F., 2013. La subsidiarité, nouvelle frontière de la Cour européenne des droits de l’homme. La semaine juridique (édition générale), 42, 1917.

Sudre, F., 2014. Le principe de subsidiarité au sens de la CEDH. Limal: Anthémis.

Thielbörger, P., 2012. Judicial Passivism at the European Court of Human Rights. Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law, 19(3), 341–347.

Tulkens, F., Van Drooghenbroeck, S., and Krenc, F., 2012. Le soft law et la Cour européenne des droits de l’homme: questions de légitimité et de méthode. Revue trimestrielle des droits de l’homme [online], (91), 478. Available at:

Van der Mensbrugghe, F.R., 2007. ‘Exceptionalisme’ du Droit américain: l’insularité de la Cour suprême des Etats-Unis. Revue de la Faculté de droit de l’Université de Liège [online], 52(2), 307. Available at:

Vergniolle de Chantal, F., 2016. Une révolution conservatrice à la Cour suprême ? In: C. Berthezène and J.C. Vindel, eds., Conservatismes en mouvement: une approche transnationale au XXe siècle [online]. Paris: EHESS, 28–29. Available at: [Accessed 31 October 2022].

Voeten, E., 2011. Politics, judicial behaviour, and institutional design. In: J. Christoffersen and M. Rask Madsen, eds. The European Court of Human Rights between law and politics. Oxford University Press, 61–76.

Walls, M.M., 2017. Obergefell v Hodges: Right Idea, Wrong Analysis. Gonzaga Law Review [online], 52, 133. Available at:

Willems, G., 2013. La vie familiale des homosexuels au prisme des articles 8, 12 et 14 de la Convention européenne des droits de l’homme : mariage et conjugalité, parenté et parentalité. Revue trimestrielle des droits de l’homme [online], vol. 93, 65-96. Available at:

Willems, G., 2014. Private and Family Life vs. Morals and Traditions in the Case-Law of the ECHR, In : K. Boele-Woelki and N. Dethloff, eds., Family Law and Culture in Europe: Developments, Challenges and Opportunities. Cambridge/Brussels: Intersentia, 305-322.

Willems, G., 2019, La vie privée et familiale au prisme des droits de l’homme : quelques réflexions comparatistes sur la jurisprudence de la Cour suprême des États-Unis et de la Cour européenne des droits de l’homme. Annales de droit de Louvain, vol. 1, p. 199.

Willems, G., 2020. Article 9 — Le droit de se marier et le droit de fonder une famille. In : F. Picod, C. Rizcallah and S. van Drooghenbroeck, eds., La Charte des droits fondamentaux de l’Union européenne — Commentaire article par article, 2e éd. Paris : Bruylant.

Willems, G., 2022, L’arrêt Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization de la Cour suprême des Etats-Unis : une lecture étriquée de la Constitution américaine au détriment des droits des femmes. Revue trimestrielle de droit familial, 2022(2), XXX.

Yoshino, K., 2015. A New Birth of Freedom?: Obergefell v Hodges. Harvard Law Review [online], 129, 157. Available at:

Zick, T., 2005. Are the States Sovereign? Washington University Law Quarterly [online], 83(1), 229–338. Available at:



How to Cite

Willems, G. (2024) “Same-sex marriage as a human right: How the Strasbourg Court could draw inspiration from the US Supreme Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to affirm marriage equality”, Oñati Socio-Legal Series, 14(1), pp. 176–212. doi: 10.35295/osls.iisl/0000-0000-0000-1347.