Could the US have equal marriage by next year?
The US Supreme Court will hear Perry v. Hollingsworth this spring (as well as challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, which most observers do expect to be overturned), a mere decade after decriminalising relations between men. This is a high stakes game in the battle for equal marriage for gay and lesbian couples. On the one hand, the Court could rule that the fundamental constitutional right to marry should be restricted by sex, protected by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and immediately in force in all fifty US States. On the other, they could rule that this is a standard policy question to be decided by each state, whether by state courts, legislature or popular vote. Were they to rule in this way, the process would continue as it did in November, with a steady and growing number of states providing for equality, but leaving gay people in states like North Carolina waiting some time.
This court battle arose after California voted for Proposition 8 in November 2008, the same day they voted for Barack Obama for president. This amended the California constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. This overturned a state court ruling in favour of equal marriage earlier that year. The 10,000 couples who had married could stay married, but no more gay couples could.
In 2009, Ted Olson and David Boies were announced as the legal team who would challenge Proposition 8 against the US Constitution. They had faced off against each other in Bush v. Gore, but now combined in the fight for equality in the case filed as Perry v. Schwarzenegger, representing two women and two men who each wished to marry. They based their case on three key points:
- that the US Constitution protects a fundamental right to marriage;
- that being denied marriage negatively affects gay and lesbian couples and their families;
- and that allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry will in no way harm marriage for heterosexual couples
During the trial, both the lawyers defending Prop 8 and its chief dependent provided great moments that only bolstered the case of the plaintiffs. When asked what harm same-sex marriage would bring, the defence lawyer could only answer, “I don’t know”. David Blankenhorn, President of the Institute for American Values, admitted that the law would be more American on the day it allowed gay people to marry (he has since publicly declared that he now supports equal marriage).
In August 2010, the District Court ruled in favour of the plaintiffs, finding a fundamental right to marry, and striking down Prop 8. Its proponents challenged this to the Circuit Court, losing there. However, this ruling, in February 2012, was narrower, applying it only to the specific circumstances of California. They ruled that because Prop 8 removed a right that had existed for a number of months before November 2008, and without good cause, it could not stand. They did not rule on a constitutional right did marry, so the ruling did not apply to other states in the Ninth Circuit. The Prop 8 supporters appealed this ruling to the next stage, the Supreme Court.
Any sensible advocate of equal marriage would have hoped that the Supreme Court would not hear this appeal. Had they not, California would today be joining the states where gay couples can marry.
But sometimes it’s good to be bold. It could go roughly three ways. Worst case is the appeal is successful and Prop 8 is allowed to stand. They could side with the Ninth Circuit and rule in favour of the specific circumstances, without touching on the question of a fundamental right, leaving that for a future date.
But if the Justices have a sense of history, they may decide not to seen as the court who fudged this question. We could see another ruling on gay equality authored by Anthony Kennedy. He has a clear libertarian mindset, seen in the nature of his opposition to the Affordable Care Act last year. He wrote the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which removed statutes criminalising male homosexual relations, as well as a case on the mid 1990s striking down a ballot measure in Colorado which allowed discrimination based on sexuality.
With the great, clear and coherent case presented by Olson and Boies, we could see the end of the battle for marriage equality. The court could decide to just save a lot if people time and energy, in what might otherwise be dragged on for a decade more or so. And the very fact that this is considered a definite possibility, even by those who see it as the less likely outcome, shows in itself how far the debate has shifted.