Marriage equality may have rounded the last turn today in its race through the US legal system.
When the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals set up the question in Kitchen v. Herbert this way, there was no possible outcome other than a strong decision affirming the lower court, in favor of a right to marry for same-sex couples:
May a State of the Union constitutionally deny a citizen the benefit or protection of the laws of the State based solely upon the sex of the person that citizen chooses to marry?
Sure enough, the decision is a thorough trashing of the state of Utah’s defense of its same-sex marriage ban:
Having heard and carefully considered the argument of the litigants, we conclude that, consistent with the United States Constitution, the State of Utah may not do so. We hold that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right to marry, establish a family, raise children, and enjoy the full protection of a state’s marital laws. A state may not deny the issuance of a marriage license to two persons, or refuse to recognize their marriage, based solely upon the sex of the persons in the marriage union.
This is a federal appeals court — higher than the federal courts that have been overturning state laws left and right — and the first to rule that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional. After this, it’s on to the Supreme Court. Here are some more highlights from the decision.
The decision states that the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision (which I discussed here) is “not directly controlling, but adds that “the similarity between the claims at issue in Windsor and those asserted by the plaintiffs in this case cannot be ignored.” That is teeing up the Supreme Court’s future decision for Windsor author Justice Kennedy, and confirming the conclusions of many that Scalia was right in his Windsor dissent:
As far as this Court is concerned, no one should be fooled; it is just a matter of listening and waiting for the other shoe. By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.
The decision today also explains that extending the right to marry to same-sex couples does not constitute creating a new right, but merely recognizing that the prohibition against arbitrary denial of rights to marriage — which has been expressed in broad terms in the past — applies to same-sex couples as well. For example, the Casey decision explains about Loving v. Virginia (which overturned interracial marriage bans):
[m]arriage is mentioned nowhere in the Bill of Rights and interracial marriage was illegal in most States in the 19th century, but the Court was no doubt correct in finding it to be an aspect of liberty protected against state interference by the substantive component of the Due Process Clause in Loving v. Virginia.
That is, Loving and other decisions described the “freedom of choice to marry” broadly enough that it can now be extended without a finding that the Supreme Court intended to extend it to same-sex couples: “the Supreme Court has traditionally described the right to marry in broad terms independent of the persons exercising it.” And they quote from a dissent in a prior case, Hernandez v. Robles: “Simply put, fundamental rights are fundamental rights. They are not defined in terms of who is entitled to exercise them.”
They also address Utah’s specious claim that marriage rights are really about the right to procreation by citing precedents that protect the right not to procreate (e.g., the Eisenstadt and Griswold cases on contraception), and the right of parents to raise their children (not just bear them), as in the Carey decision and others on parenting rights, and decisions protecting the rights of adoptive parents.
On the idea that Utah should be able to ban same-sex marriage because it has an interest in furthering the idea of procreation within marriage (which I discussed here), the decision is dismissive:
Among the myriad types of non-procreative couples, only those Utahns who seek to marry a partner of the same sex are categorically excluded from the institution of marriage. Only same-sex couples, appellants claim, need to be excluded to further the state’s interest in communicating the link between unassisted biological procreation and marriage. As between non-procreative opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples, we can discern no meaningful distinction with respect to appellants’ interest in fostering biological reproduction within marriages. The Equal Protection Clause “is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike.” Extending the benefits and protections of a civil society to some but not all similarly situated families violates this critical guarantee.
Interesting here the judges are not arguing about a couple’s right to marry, but rather about an individual’s right to marry someone of the same sex. That’s a harder right to deny.
And on the whole idea that gay marriage threatens straight marriage:
We emphatically agree with the numerous cases decided since Windsor that it is wholly illogical to believe that state recognition of the love and commitment between same-sex couples will alter the most intimate and personal decisions of opposite-sex couples.
On the comparison to no-fault divorce, which supposedly undermined marriage generally, an extended riff on hypocrisy:
We cannot accept appellants’ claim that allowing same-sex couples to marry is analogous to a law that permits married couples to divorce. The former causes an increase in the number of married individuals, whereas the latter decreases the number of marriages in a state. … Setting aside the implausibility of the comparison, we observe that Utah has adopted precisely the no-fault divorce regime that appellants decry in their briefing. … Through its no-fault divorce statute, Utah allows a spouse—the bedrock component of the marital unit—to leave his family whenever he wants and for whatever reason moves him. It is difficult to imagine how the State’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriage undercuts in any meaningful way a state message of support for marital constancy given its adoption of a divorce policy that conveys a message of indifference to marital longevity.
Further, on the idea, so revoltingly disgorged by Hawkins and Carroll in the Utah case (as I discussed here), that gay marriage would make straight men love their children less:
We cannot imagine a scenario under which recognizing same-sex marriages would affect the decision of a member of an opposite-sex couple to have a child, to marry or stay married to a partner, or to make personal sacrifices for a child.
And finally, in the category of burying the Regnerus-Wilcox agenda to support with social science the bans on same-sex marriage in the name of children’s wellbeing (here’s the whole history):
We cannot embrace the contention that children raised by opposite-sex parents fare better than children raised by same-sex parents—to the extent appellants continue to press it—in light of their representations to this court. Appellants’ only reasoning in this regard is that there might be advantages in one parenting arrangement that are lacking in the other. On strict scrutiny, an argument based only on pure speculation and conjecture cannot carry the day. Appellants’ tepid defense of their parenting theory further highlights the looseness of the fit between the State’s chosen means and appellants’ asserted end.
I hope this means Regnerus and his ilk have cashed their last expert-witness check in this cause.
For us non-legal types, the writing judges do when they’re defending fundamental rights is surely their most compelling (and in this genre I highly recommend Judge Walker’s 2010 decision on California’s Prop 8). Overall, it’s an eloquent decision, and worth reading.
But, getting ahead of ourselves a little, it’s also worth pointing out that the 10th Circuit decision contributes to the de-radicalizing of the marriage rights movement with this quip:
Plaintiffs seek to enter into legally recognized marriages, with all the concomitant rights and responsibilities enshrined in Utah law. They desire not to redefine the institution but to participate in it.
Right! Wait… what?