The Supreme Court has decided several controversial cases this week. Today it handed down two rulings that are a breakthrough for personal freedom: United States v. Windsor, and Hollingsworth v. Perry.
In the first case, United States v. Windsor, the surviving widow in a same-sex marriage sued the United States for violating her equal protection rights because the IRS denied her a marriage-related tax exemption. This case illustrates perfectly why gay marriage rights are about more than just a name, more than a label. In this case specifically, the issue was a tax exemption that prevents surviving spouses from having to pay the “death tax” on what their deceased spouse leaves behind. I could argue all day about the validity of the thousands upon thousands of little details like this in our tax code, but the fact remains that, under our current system, they exist. It’s not just taxes; hundreds of other regulations governing property rights, medical care, and custody of children hinge upon the definition of marriage. Getting a governmental marriage approval stamp on a relationship confers so many privileges that people in traditional monogamous heterosexual marriages just don’t even think about. Yes, a same-sex couple in any state can go to a church or a secular minister and have their own wedding ceremony. They can call themselves married and represent themselves that way to the community. Without a government stamp of approval, though, they are denied access to the privileges that sanctioned marriages enjoy.
If you don’t want the government to sanction same-sex marriage, then you need to dismantle all the government incentives for acquiring a sanctioned marriage. Otherwise, you are denying equal access and protection. The court recognized this today when it struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.
The second case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, involved California’s Proposition 8, which was a voter-passed constitutional amendment barring state recognition of same-sex marriage. Proposition 8 was passed in response to California’s legalization of same-sex marriage. It was a voter initiative, not a government initiative…and when a same-sex couple challenged its validity, the government refused to defend it. In order to defend the law they helped enact, the original supporters of Proposition 8 stepped in to argue in its favor in the legal battle. Their efforts were in vain, and the District Court overturned Proposition 8 for much the same reasons the SCOTUS today overturned DOMA. The backers of Proposition 8 did not give up, filing an appeal. The question that made it to the Supreme Court was whether they had the legal standing to do so, and the court ruled that they did not.
In order to have legal standing in this case, the backers of Proposition 8 would need to either be direct agents of the government, which they were not, or they would need to have been directly harmed by the overturning of Proposition 8. They were not. Those in favor of Proposition 8 and similar actions continue to argue that opening up the governmental definition of sanctioned marriage will have negative consequences on society as a whole. I have not yet seen any valid evidence of this. Arguments are made that the birth rate will go down, that the number of babies born out of wedlock will increase, that crime will increase, that all manner of evil things will ensue. These arguments are purely speculative, and evidence is mounting against them. Very similar arguments were made against interracial marriage, and they were just as frivolous. Without demonstrable evidence of harm, nobody has the backing to continue to fight this legal battle.
Ultimately, marriage is a contract between consenting adults, as far as government should be concerned. Nearly everybody agrees today that government should not be in the business of promoting religious values. Government’s role is also not to promote social mores, even when those mores are held by a majority of citizens (because we are not a democracy, folks, and you really don’t want to be). Government’s role is to uphold contract law. Ultimately, I believe this should extend to any relationship contract made between consenting adults, be it term marriage, line marriage, group marriage, or any other form it may take. Government recognition of these contracts and their validity will not take away anything from believers in monogamous heterosexuality. Instead, it will provide improved social security for the members of these families, improved care for the children of these families, improved access to medical care and education, all strong social benefits that everyone should support.
Today was another important step along the path. The war is not over, but important battles have been won, and deserve celebration.