As a psychologist, this reminder of the right to pursue positive emotions is exciting, because it tells us that the pursuit of emotional fulfillment is protected at the very foundations of our early government. It also validates the truth that emotional harm can be as grievous a legal injury as physical or economic harm.
Justice Kennedy cites emotional harm in his argument against the denial of same-sex marriage rights. He acknowledges the hurt that results from laws and customs that make people feel bad about themselves, and he rejects prohibitions that would "disparage their choices and diminish their personhood." The mission of psychotherapy is often the same, to help people recover from inhumane past treatment that shamed or subjugated them into self-doubt and impaired self-esteem.
In the Obergefell-v-Hodges opinion, Justice Kennedy uses terms of emotional injury such as "demean," "disrespect" and "pain and humiliation." He reminds us that the Constitution protects our right to be protected from emotionally hurtful treatment. The court decision asserts that social exclusion harms people, and that a person's full liberty, in the sense that the Constitution means it, cannot occur without a protected climate of acceptance and dignity. In the following passage, Justice Kennedy explicitly describes the emotional deprivation that occurs in the absence of equal marriage rights:
"Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other."
This Court's majority opinion defends our liberty to fulfill our deepest emotional needs. It reminds us not only of our legal rights, but our emotional rights. It says that people are not legally equal or able to enjoy full liberty if seeking happiness in full emotional commitment means that they will be shamed or excluded.
The opinion recognizes that this right to fulfill our deepest emotional bonds is crucial to protect for everyone. With this decision, we are all reminded that certain undeniable emotional needs are the core of a happy life, and must be protected as much as any other liberty. We can all celebrate our freedom to live in emotional authenticity this Fourth of July.