And so, now Obergefell v. Hodges has come down. Not a shocking result, honestly, though I did think the vote would be 7-2 or 6-3, and not another razor thin 5-4 margin. I wonder if it’s possible that Chief Justice Roberts was hoping for a more conciliatory and moderate draft from Justice Kennedy, one he might be able to join, and was taken aback by how sweeping Kennedy’s decision was. But it’s done, and is unlikely to be undone. SCOTUSblog has lots of outstanding expert legal analysis on the decision; time for me to weigh in with my decidedly inexpert parsing of it. (As always, I am just a playwright with wifi; I do not claim any legal or scholarly credentials).
What strikes me, reading both Kennedy’s decision and the dissents from Roberts and from Scalia, Alito and Thomas, is the degree to which they’re writing at cross purposes. They’re not even addressing the same issues. That’s been true throughout this debate. One side insists that the central issue here is a radical redefinition of marriage, that it’s about how marriage even gets defined and who should define it, even, on the margins, calling this particular redefinition a potentially catastrophic and certainly radical social experiment. What that leads to, frankly, is federalism. Conservatives are generally fonder of federalism than liberals are, and that’s the main issue that Roberts addresses; whether unelected judges should define something as fundamental to society as marriage, or whether The People should define it, through their elected officials, state by state.
That’s a reasonable position. But if, in fact, citizens of the United States have a fundamental right to marry, then to deny that right to members of an unpopular minority is a wrong that needs to be redressed. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that all citizens receive equal protection under the law. If some citizens of the United States are denied legal equality by the states in which they happen to reside, then that becomes a matter for judicial intervention. Citizens are being harmed. Citizens are being discriminated against. And it’s not just appropriate for courts to step in; it’s necessary. That’s their function.
Put another way, does Kennedy’s decision in Obergefell bully the states? Is this a situation where courts unfairly tell states what they can and can’t do? Or is this a situation where states are bullying gay people, and the court is telling them to cut it out?
So: do citizens have a right to marry? The Constitution never mentions marriage; the word ‘marriage’ never appears in the Bill of Rights. So how can Justice Kennedy insist that there is a constitutional right to marry? Here’s Justice Roberts final paragraph:
If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.
So let’s talk about rights, and let’s talk about history. What is a ‘right worthy of constitutional protection?’ And what I write next may seem simple-minded and foolish. It may be presumptuous of me to say that my status as a layman, my lack of legal credentials, could also give me a different, and dare I say, needed perspective. But here goes. Rights are fundamental areas into which government cannot intrude. And rights are basically what most people believe to be rights. You believe that something is a right because, come on, of course that’s a right. Why wouldn’t it be?
It’s certainly true that the Framers never mentioned marriage. But then, their understanding of marriage was very different from ours. The primary legal requirement in 18th century America involved the posting of the banns, which took place three weeks before the wedding. (And I suspect that was mostly for well-off families). You could register a marriage with the county clerk, but this was rarely done. Divorce was difficult to obtain. Marriage itself was a subset of property law.
More to the point, though, the Bill of Rights did not include a right to marry, because nobody thought to include one. I mean, fathers might forbid their daughters marrying some wastrel n’er-do-well (leading, at least in novels, to spectacular elopements), but the idea that a government entity would forbid some marriage or another was just nonsense. It just wasn’t the kind of thing that ever happened.
But soldiers were quartered in people’s houses without the owner’s consent. The British had done that, and it was bitterly resented. So the Third Amendment is in the Bill of Rights, though today it’s mostly just considered a charming anachronism. And states and communities did insist that men form militias, and drill periodically with their muskets, and so we have the Second Amendment, though its meaning has morphed weirdly into a right to buy a hunting rifle at Cabela’s.
Most particularly, the Bill of Rights does not include a right to vote. That’s because the Framers wanted to limit the voting franchise. But today, we believe that all adult citizens have the right to vote. And getting those rights into the Constitution required further amendments; the Fifteenth and Nineteenth.
Not long ago, a friend of mine proposed on Facebook this: that there existed a fundamental right for all children to be reared by their biological parents. Would I support calling that a right? I’d never thought of it before; never considered it. So I thought about it. And after some somber reflection, I decided that that idea was crazy. I couldn’t have disagreed more. The simple reality is that some biological parents are terribly neglectful and abusive, enough so that they’ve forfeited their parental rights. And other people just can’t deal with kids, and give them up for adoption, and that’s terrific, that’s a great thing, adoption is a wonderful human institution giving kids in tough situations a chance. So there you are. Someone proposed that something should be considered a right. I disagreed, and I think most folks would disagree. That’s a decidedly minority position. So it’s not a right.
So, okay, what about marriage? Do citizens, consenting adults who have decided to commit their lives together, have a basic, fundamental, human right to do that, to marry? Should we consider that right as basic and fundamental as the right to free speech, or freedom of the press, or the freedom to worship freely? The Obergefell decision lists lots of case law precedents to support the majority’s claim that marriage is a right, but let’s instead just be, you know, people. What do we think? Don’t worry about legalities; is the right to marry a fundamental human right?
Man, I can’t imagine how anyone could say that it isn’t. I mean, not everyone gets to marry, and not all marriages work. But we think divorce is a tragedy, and feel compassion for our unmarried friends, precisely because we think marriage is so important. Think about it. Is anything more basic than our society’s commitment to marriage? Is there anything more intrinsically, fundamentally important than marriage? Is there a choice we make, ever, that’s more important?
Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work out, and there’s terrible heartbreak and sorrow and pain involved. But that fact only shows how important it is, how essential we regard it as being. For two people to say ‘I choose you, I commit my life to you, I have decided that you are the one person on earth I want to be with for the rest of my life’ goes right to the heart of what it means to be a human being. And in our culture, in American culture in the 21st century, the main way people make that kind of public declaration of that commitment is through the institution we call marriage. Of course, some people choose not to marry; that’s also their right. But it basically comes down to this: are gay people fully citizens of the United States? And if not, why not? That’s the question that Justice Kennedy answered so eloquently:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
This is not to say that the concerns of the other side aren’t worthy of our consideration. But I would suggest to you that marriage is a right, and that the more you think about it, the more you’ll agree that it has to be. And that’s why I say, after careful reflection, that Obergefell was rightly decided.