SCOTUS upholds equal protection, rules against laws excluding gays and lesbians from marriage

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

In 2003 I was a graduate student in the philosophy program at UCSD, taking a seminar on jurisprudence from the eminent moral philosopher David Brink. In his seminar we read and discussed a variety of arguments by scholars ranging from Justice Antonin Scalia on “originalism” to Joel Feinberg on free expression vs. “offensive nuisances,” and we also read and discussed seminal Supreme Court cases relating to these issues. I had been interested in law and legal issues for many years by that time, having taken up policy debate as a way of life in high school, not to mention mock trial and Model U.N. in college. Moreover, I was a gay man and conscientious citizen who had already concluded that legal discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation had no place in a constitutional democracy that depends, in its very meaning, on the motto “equal protection under the law.” In other words, I was a “second-class” citizen with an axe to grind and had the analytical skills and arguments to hone its edge to near perfection. Sharpen Sie!

It was in that seminar that a close reading of constitutional principles and significant SCOTUS decisions on due process and equal protection convinced me there was one, and only one, simple line of argument leading from the 14th Amendment to the legal validity of same-sex marriage. I wrote my seminar paper on this topic, revised it later that summer, and sent it out for publication. The paper was titled “Equal Protection and Same-Sex Marriage” and it was published in the Journal of Social Philosophy in 2004. In it, I argued that the proper constitutional argument for supporting a decision on behalf of same-sex marriage and invalidating both federal and state laws defining “marriage” as a union of a man and woman is easily discerned in equal protection doctrine.

Admittedly, there is a lot of semantic confusion about the word “marriage” and its proper referent in this case, as well as a lot of empirically inaccurate, vaguely historical arguments about its definition as such a union (truthfully, before the emergence of the modern democratic state in Western societies only recently, and in much of the world still, “marriage” really refers to men owning and treating women like property). However, there is a precise legal meaning to the word “marriage” in this constitutional debate, and here we are talking exclusively about “civil” marriage, or the state’s legal recognition of a union between two persons that includes all the benefits and burdens that such recognition entails. Insofar as the state recognizes such unions from a legal standpoint they cannot exclude some persons from participating in it but not others. To do so is to violate the letter and the spirit of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which can be found at the very end Section 1 of that amendment. The sections reads:  “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. 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.”

Unfortunately, the inane and insanely inaccurate debate sponsored by American-style conservatism about re-defining the word “marriage” has simply muddied the water to what is otherwise a crystal-clear expression of the obvious:  The decision that the Supreme Court reached in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 27, 2015 doesn’t redefine “marriage” at all, doesn’t substitute the judgment of “five lawyers” on the bench for the “will of the people,” and doesn’t even invent a new “gay” right on anything. Rather, the landmark ruling does nothing more and nothing less than enforce the equal protection of the clause of the 14th Amendment concerning the “civil” recognition of marriage laws by states. In short, there are already are “marriage” laws on the books, and since the 14th Amendment states to the letter, “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,” it follows without remainder that the majority decision of this civil rights case is exactly right.

Now for those who unfamiliar with its history, the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868, as one of several Reconstruction Amendments drafted in response to issues related to former slaves following the American Civil War including the intransigence of southern states to accept the rule of law. In short, the amendment was created as a means of strengthening our constitutional system against detractors and scofflaws. We fought them in the Civil War, we fought them against Jim Crow, we fought them to desegregate. Therefore, it is important to recall that the basis of this landmark decision overturning anti-gay marriage laws, that civil rights are for all not just for some, is rooted in this country’s long and painful history to overcome, confront, overcome again and confront yet again.

By Kory P. Schaff, Editor