June 24, 2015
At this writing, we are awaiting an imminent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on a set of cases involving a claim that the Constitution requires states to permit civil marriages between persons of the same sex.
However, several Supreme Courts (state courts, that is) have already rejected similar arguments to those offered in Obergefell v. Hodges. Today, I present Part 2 of a four-part series with key excerpts from those decisions. Part 1 featured the earliest such decision, Baker v. Nelson (Minnesota, 1971).
The next three feature decisions by the highest court in three liberal states—New York, Washington, and Maryland. Unlike the Minnesota decision, each of these was handed down within the last ten years. Each of these states has since redefined marriage, but they have done so through the democratic process, not through judicial fiat. The U.S. Supreme Court should allow the same privilege to other states—the eleven which has chosen democratically to change their definition of marriage, and the thirty which have put a one-man-one-woman marriage definition in their state constitutions.
In Hernandez v Robles in 2006, the Court of Appeals of New York (the state’s highest court) addressed the rational basis which supports the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman (citations abbreviated):
The critical question is whether a rational legislature could decide that these benefits [of civil marriage] should be given to members of opposite-sex couples, but not same-sex couples. . . . We conclude . . . that there are at least two grounds that rationally support the limitation on marriage that the Legislature has enacted. Others have been advanced, but we will discuss only these two, both of which are derived from the undisputed assumption that marriage is important to the welfare of children.
First, the Legislature could rationally decide that, for the welfare of children, it is more important to promote stability, and to avoid instability, in opposite-sex than in same-sex relationships. Heterosexual intercourse has a natural tendency to lead to the birth of children; homosexual intercourse does not. Despite the advances of science, it remains true that the vast majority of children are born as a result of a sexual relationship between a man and a woman, and the Legislature could find that this will continue to be true. The Legislature could also find that such relationships are all too often casual or temporary. It could find that an important function of marriage is to create more stability and permanence in the relationships that cause children to be born. It could thus choose to offer an inducement—in the form of marriage and its attendant benefits—to opposite-sex couples who make a solemn, long-term commitment to each other.
The Legislature could find that this rationale for marriage does not apply with comparable force to same-sex couples. These couples can become parents by adoption, or by artificial insemination or other technological marvels, but they do not become parents as a result of accident or impulse. The Legislature could find that unsatable relationships between people of the opposite sex present a greater danger than children will be born into or grow up in unstable homes than is the case with same-sex couples, and thus that promoting stability in opposite-sex relationships will help children more. This is one reason why the Legislature could rationally offer the benefits of marriage to opposite-sex couples only.
There is a second reason: The Legislature could rationally believe that it is better, other things being equal, for children to grow up with both a mother and a father. Intuition and experience suggest that a child benefits from having before his or her eyes, every day, living models of what both a man and a woman are like. It is obvious that there are exceptions to this general rule—some children who never know their fathers, or their mothers, do far better than some who grow up with parents of both sexes—but the Legislature could find that the general rule will usually hold.
Later in its opinion, the New York court responded to the chief argument made against its conclusion that a one-man-one-woman marriage definition is rationally related to concerns about procreation and child-rearing:
Plaintiffs argue that a classification distinguishing between opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples cannot pass rational basis scrutiny, because if the relevant State interest is the procreation of children, the category of those permitted to marry—opposite-sex couples—is both underinclusive and overinclusive. We disagree.
Plaintiffs argue that the category is underinclusive because, as we recognized above, same-sex couples, as well as opposite-sex couples, may have children. That is indeed a reason why the Legislature might rationally choose to extend marriage or its benefits to same-sex couples; but it could also, for the reasons we have explained, rationally make another choice, based on the different characteristics of opposite-sex and same-sex relationships. Our earlier discussion demonstrates that the definition of marriage to include only opposite-sex couples is not irrationally underinclusive.
In arguing that the definition is overinclusive, plaintiffs point out that many opposite-sex couples cannot have or do not want to have children. How can it be rational, they ask, to permit these couples, but not same-sex couples, to marry? The question is not a difficult one to answer. While same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples are easily distinguished, limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples likely to have children would require grossly intrusive inquiries, and arbitrary and unreliable line-drawing. A legislature that regarded marriage primarily or solely as an institution for the benefit of children could rationally find that an attempt to exclude childless opposite-sex couples from the institution would be a very bad idea.
Rational basis scrutiny is highly indulgent towards the State’s classifications. Indeed, it is “a paradigm of judicial restraint” (Affronti v Crosson, New York, 2001). We conclude that permitting marriage by all opposite-sex couples does not create an irrationally over-narrow or overbroad classification. The distinction between opposite-sex and same-sex couples enacted by the Legislature does not violate the Equal Protection Clause.