United States: Same-Sex Marriage And The Anticipated Supreme Court Ruling

It is anticipated that, either today or next Monday, the United States Supreme Court will hand down its decision as to the constitutionality (or not) of state laws and constitutional provisions defining marriage as between one man and one woman.  Inter alia, the Court will decide whether forbidding same-sex marriage violates the Equal Protection clause of the federal Constitution.  It is well beyond me to predict what the Court will do and, equally important, the analytic paradigm they will employ. To quote Samuel Meyer, "I never make predictions, especially about the future."

That said, if the Supreme Court does find there to be a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, in so doing striking down laws such as that in Kentucky which by constitutional amendment define marriage is between one man and one woman, many persons, particularly on religious grounds, are going to object. I submit it is important are those with religious objections to same-sex marriage to appreciate that the question considered by the Supreme Court is the underlying constitutionalissues and principles at play. These differing paradigms were considered and addressed by the late Judge Heyburn in his decision striking down Kentucky's same-sex marriage ban, namely Bourke v. Beshear, 996 F.Supp.2d 542 (W.D. Ky. 2014):

For many, a case involving these issues prompts some sincere questions and concerns. After all, recognizing same-sex marriage clashes with many accepted norms in Kentucky—both in society and faith. To the extent courts clash with what likely remains that majority opinion here, they risk some of the public's acceptance. For these reasons, the Court feels a special obligation to answer some of those concerns.

Many Kentuckians believe in "traditional marriage." Many believe what their ministers and scriptures tell them: that a marriage is a sacrament instituted between God and a man and a woman for society's benefit. They may be confused—even angry—when a decision such as this one seems to call into question that view. These concerns are understandable and deserve an answer.

Our religious beliefs and societal traditions are vital to the fabric of society. Though each faith, minister, and individual can define marriage for themselves, at issue here are laws that act outside that protected sphere. Once the government defines marriage and attaches benefits to that definition, it must do so constitutionally. It cannot impose a traditional or faith-based limitation upon a public right without a sufficient justification for it. Assigning a religious or traditional rationale for a law, does not make it constitutional when that law discriminates against a class of people without other reasons.

The beauty of our Constitution is that it accommodates our individual faith's definition of marriage while preventing the government from unlawfully treating us differently. This is hardly surprising since it was written by people who came to America to find both freedom of religion and freedom from it.

Many others may wonder about the future of marriages generally and the right of a religion or an individual church to set its own rules governing it. For instance, must Kentucky now allow same-sex couples to marry in this state? Must churches now marry same-sex couples? How will this decision change or affect my marriage?

First, the Court was not presented with the particular question whether Kentucky's ban on same-sex marriage is constitutional. However, there is no doubt that Windsor and this Court's analysis suggest a possible result to that question.

Second, allowing same-sex couples the state recognition, benefits, and obligations of marriage does not in any way diminish those enjoyed by opposite-sex married couples. No one has offered any evidence that recognizing same-sex marriages will harm opposite-sex marriages, individually or collectively. One's belief to the contrary, however sincerely held, cannot alone justify denying a selected group their constitutional rights.

Third, no court can require churches or other religious institutions to marry same-sex couples or any other couple, for that matter. This is part of our constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. That decision will always be based on religious doctrine.

What this opinion does, however, is make real the promise of equal protection under the law. It will profoundly affect validly married same-sex couples' experience of living in the Commonwealth and elevate their marriage to an equal status in the eyes of state law.

Many people might assume that the citizens of a state by their own state constitution can establish the basic principles of governing their civil life. How can a single judge interfere with that right?

It is true that the citizens have wide latitude to codify their traditional and moral values into law. In fact, until after the Civil War, states had almost complete power to do so, unless they encroached on a specific federal power. See Barron v. City of Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243, 250–51, 7 Pet. 243, 8 L.Ed. 672 (1833). However, in 1868 our country adopted the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibited state governments from infringing upon our individual rights. Over the years, the Supreme Court has said time and time again that this Amendment makes the vast majority of the original Bill of Rights and other fundamental rights applicable to state governments.

In fact, the first justice to articulate this view was one of Kentucky's most famous sons, Justice John Marshall Harlan. See Hurtado v. California, 110 U.S. 516, 558, 4 S.Ct. 111, 28 L.Ed. 232 (1884) (Harlan, J., dissenting). He wrote that the Fourteenth Amendment "added greatly to the dignity and glory of American citizenship, and to the security of personal liberty, by declaring that ... 'no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.' " Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 555, 16 S.Ct. 1138, 41 L.Ed. 256 (1896) (Harlan, J., dissenting) (quoting U.S. CONST. amend. XIV).

[4] So now, the Constitution, including its equal protection and due process clauses, protects all of us from government action at any level, whether in the form of an act by a high official, a state employee, a legislature, or a vote of the people adopting a constitutional amendment. As Chief *556 Justice John Marshall said, "[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is." Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 5 U.S. 137, 177, 2 L.Ed. 60 (1803). Initially that decision typically rests with one judge; ultimately, other judges, including the justices of the Supreme Court, have the final say. That is the way of our Constitution.

For many others, this decision could raise basic questions about our Constitution. For instance, are courts creating new rights? Are judges changing the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment or our Constitution? Why is all this happening so suddenly?

 The answer is that the right to equal protection of the laws is not new. History has already shown us that, while the Constitution itself does not change, our understanding of the meaning of its protections and structure evolves. If this were not so, many practices that we now abhor would still exist.

Contrary to how it may seem, there is nothing sudden about this result. The body of constitutional jurisprudence that serves as its foundation has evolved gradually over the past forty-seven years. The Supreme Court took its first step on this journey in 1967 when it decided the landmark case Loving v. Virginia, which declared that Virginia's refusal to marry mixed-race couples violated equal protection. The Court affirmed that even areas such as marriage, traditionally reserved to the states, are subject to constitutional scrutiny and "must respect the constitutional rights of persons." Windsor, 133 S.Ct. at 2691 (citing Loving ).

Years later, in 1996, Justice Kennedy first emerged as the Court's swing vote and leading explicator of these issues in Romer v. Evans. Romer, 517 U.S. at 635, 116 S.Ct. 1620 (holding that Colorado's constitutional amendment prohibiting all legislative, executive, or judicial action designed to protect homosexual persons violated the Equal Protection Clause). He explained that if the " 'constitutional conception of 'equal protection of the laws' means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare ... desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest.' " Id. at 634–35, 116 S.Ct. 1620 (emphasis in original) (quoting Dep't of Agric. v. Moreno, 413 U.S. 528, 534, 93 S.Ct. 2821, 37 L.Ed.2d 782 (1973)). These two cases were the virtual roadmaps for the cases to come next.

In 2003, Justice Kennedy, again writing for the majority, addressed another facet of the same issue in Lawrence v. Texas, explaining that sexual relations are "but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring" and holding that a Texas statute criminalizing certain sexual conduct between persons of the same sex violated the Constitution. 539 U.S. at 567, 123 S.Ct. 2472. Ten years later came Windsor. And, sometime in the next few years at least one other Supreme Court opinion will likely complete this judicial journey.

So, as one can readily see, judicial thinking on this issue has evolved ever so slowly. That is because courts usually answer only the questions that come before it. Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes aptly described this process: "[J]udges do and must legislate, but they can do so only interstitially; they are confined from molar to molecular motions." S. Pac. Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 221, 37 S.Ct. 524, 61 L.Ed. 1086 (1917) (Holmes, J., dissenting). In Romer, Lawrence, and finally, Windsor, the Supreme Court has moved interstitially, as Holmes said it should, establishing the framework of cases from which district judges now draw wisdom and inspiration. Each of these small steps has led to this place and this time, where the right of same-sex spouses to the state-conferred benefits of marriage is virtually compelled.

Originally published on Kentucky Business Entity Law

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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