Marriage, the Court, and the future.

Author:Anderson, Ryan T.
Position:US Supreme Court

INTRODUCTION I. WHAT THE COURT SAID (AND HOW IT GOT IT WRONG) II. THE DISSENTS III. WHAT THE DISSENTING JUSTICES HAD TO SAY ABOUT THE HARMS THIS RULING WOULD CAUSE A. Harm to Constitutional Democratic Self-Government B. Harm to Civil Harmony C. Two Views of Marriage IV. THE COMPREHENSIVE VIEW OF MARRIAGE A. An Academic Community B. The Marital Community C. The Comprehensive View of Marriage Is Based on Human Nature, Not Anti-Gay Animosity V. WHY MARRIAGE MATTERS FOR PUBLIC POLICY VI. CONSEQUENCES OF REDEFINING MARRIAGE A. Serving the Desires of Adults, Not the Needs or Rights of Children B. Weakening Marital Norms C. The Norm of Monogamy D. The Norm of Exclusivity E. The Norm of Permanence F. What's in a Name? G. Threatening Religious Liberty INTRODUCTION

The Supreme Court's ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges (1) is a serious setback for Americans who believe in the Constitution, the rule of law, self-government, and marriage as the union of husband and wife. The Supreme Court has not simply decided a case incorrectly, it has damaged the common good and harmed our republic. The ruling is as clear of an example of judicial usurpation as we have had in a generation. Nothing in the Constitution justifies the redefinition of marriage by judges. In imposing on the American people its judgment about a policy matter that the Constitution leaves to citizens and their elected representatives, the Court has inflicted serious damage on the institution of marriage and the Constitution.

In the majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court declares: "The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest." (2) Manifest to five unelected and unaccountable judges, that is. Not to the American citizens who, in state after state, voted to uphold the true definition of marriage, (3) and certainly not to the Americans who ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, on which the Court relies. The majority of the Court has simply replaced the people's opinion about what marriage is with its own, without any constitutional basis whatsoever.

Almost everyone was and is in favor of marriage equality because almost everyone wants the law to treat all marriages equally--that is, in the same way. The debate in the United States in the decade and a half before Obergefell was not about equality. It was about marriage. We disagreed about what marriage is.

Of course, "marriage equality" was a great slogan for the Left. It fits on a bumper sticker. You can make a red equal sign your Facebook profile picture. It is a wonderful piece of advertising. And yet it's completely vacuous. It doesn't say a thing about what marriage is. Only if you know what marriage is can you then decide whether any given marriage policy violates marriage equality. Before you can get to considerations of equal protection of the law, you have to know what it is that the law is trying to protect equally.

Sloganeering aside, appeals to "marriage equality" betray sloppy reasoning. Every law makes distinctions. Equality before the law protects citizens from arbitrary distinctions, from laws that treat them differently for no good reason. To know whether a law makes the right distinctions, whether the lines it draws are justified, one has to know the public purpose of the law and the nature of the good it advances or protects.

After all, even those who want to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples will draw lines defining what sorts of relationships are a marriage and what sorts are not. If we are going to draw lines that are based on principle, if we are going to draw lines that reflect the truth, we have to know what sort of a relationship marriage is. (4) You have to answer that question before you talk about recognizing marriage equally.

And yet implicit throughout the Court's argument in Obergefell is the assumption that marriage is a genderless institution. But as Justice Samuel Alito pointed out two years earlier in his dissenting opinion in the Defense of Marriage Act case, the United States Constitution is silent about what marriage is. Justice Alito framed the debate as a contest between two visions of marriage": what he calls the "conjugal" and "consent-based" views. (5)

Justice Alito cited a book I coauthored as an example of the conjugal view of marriage (also called the "comprehensive" view): a "comprehensive, exclusive, permanent union that is intrinsically ordered to producing new life." (6) On the other side, he cited Jonathan Rauch as a proponent of the consent-based idea that marriage is a commitment marked by emotional union. (7) The Constitution, he explained, is silent on which of these substantive visions of marriage is correct. (8) Justice Alito, of course, was right about the Constitution. And yet Justice Kennedy's majority opinion contained no serious consideration, let alone refutation, of arguments that marriage is a conjugal union of husband and wife thus that states thus had constitutional authority to so define it.

In this Article, I first dissect the argument of the majority opinion striking down conjugal marriage laws. Then I turn to the dissenting opinions, which expose the utter failure of the majority opinion as a work of constitutional law. I then consider two harms that follow from the judicial usurpation of politics on this question before turning to the substantive issues. While the Constitution is silent on which view of marriage is correct, some people simply assert that there is no rational basis, no public reason, for viewing marriage as the union of husband and wife. So after discussing the Obergefell decision itself, I turn to the question at the heart of the debate: the nature of marriage. I sketch a philosophical defense of marriage as the union of husband and wife, I explain why this matters for public policy, and I close the Article by showing three likely harms of the redefinition of marriage, whether it be accomplished democratically or, as in the United States, judicially.


    The question before the Supreme Court in Obergefell was not whether government recognition of same-sex marriages is a good policy but whether anything in the Constitution removes from the people their authority to decide their marriage policy. Yet the Court's majority speaks almost exclusively about its "new insights" into marriage (9) and says almost nothing about the Constitution. It could not have done otherwise, because our Constitution is silent on what marriage is. It protects specific fundamental rights and provides the structure of deliberative democracy by which we the people, retaining our authority as full citizens and not subjects of oligarchic rule, decide important questions of public policy, such as the proper understanding of marriage and the structure of laws defining and supporting it. The Court purports to explain why the marriage policy that the United States has followed for all its history is now prohibited by the Constitution. But what it actually does is to assume that marriage is an essentially genderless institution and then announce that the Constitution requires states to adopt that same vision of marriage in their laws.

    This assumption is all the more remarkable given Justice Kennedy's observation in oral arguments that the definition of marriage as the union of man and woman "has been with us for millennia. And it--it's very difficult for the Court to say, oh, well, we--we know better." (10) Suggesting that he was reluctant to redefine marriage from the bench, he noted that same-sex marriage had been around for only ten years. And he added, "Ten years is--I don't even know how to count the decimals when we talk about millennia." (11)

    Even the liberal Justice Stephen Breyer acknowledged that marriage understood as the union of man and woman "has been the law everywhere for thousands of years among people who were not discriminating even against gay people, and suddenly you want nine people outside the ballot box to require states that don't want to do it to change ... what marriage is." (12) He asked the Solicitor General, "Why cannot those states at least wait and see whether in fact doing so in the other states is or is not harmful to marriage?" (13) And yet he joined Justice Kennedy's majority opinion redefining marriage everywhere.

    The incoherence of the majority opinion is evident in its first paragraph:

    The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity. The petitioners in these cases seek to find that liberty by marrying someone of the same sex and having their marriages deemed lawful on the same terms and conditions as marriages between persons of the opposite sex. (14) As Justice Clarence Thomas makes clear in his dissenting opinion, though, constitutional protections of liberty can hardly require government recognition, (15) The liberty that the Constitution protects is a freedom from government interference. Gays and lesbians enjoyed full liberty "to define and express their identity" and to exercise their "liberty by marrying someone of the same sex" in the house of worship or wedding hall of their choice. (16) Yet Justice Kennedy writes as if governmental recognition of any consensual relationship is a guaranteed form of liberty.

    What support does he offer for such a conclusion? He starts with a paean to "the transcendent importance of marriage": the "lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons," and the "centrality of marriage to the human condition makes it unsurprising that the institution has existed for millennia and across civilizations." (17) Citing theological, philosophical, literary, and artistic treatments of...

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