Law: November 2008 Archives

One justification for disallowing bans on same-sex marriage is that it's seen as discrimination to prevent same-sex couples from marrying. [In this post I'm not considering under what circumstances discrimination is wrong and when it's perfectly ok. The moral issue isn't my interest here. I'm just looking at whether it's discrimination, leaving aside the moral issue of whether such discrimination is ok. It's ok to discriminate against black people when casting a part in a play for a character that was written as a white racist. But it's still discrimination, just a perfectly legitimate kind. I'm interested in the legal implications here, not the moral ones.]

Whether a practice or act counts as discrimination depends on some assumptions. Two key issues are (a) who is being discriminated against and (b) on what basis.

Consider Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that overturned bans on interracial marriage. The Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment prevents states from treating individuals of different races differently when it comes to who they can marry. If a man is black, he couldn't marry a white woman in Virginia, but if he'd been white then he could have. That's discrimination against individuals along race lines.

Restricting marriage to same-sex couples isn't quite parallel. It doesn't discriminate against individuals according to sexual orientation. A gay man has the same rights as a straight man. He can marry an unmarried woman who is of age or who otherwise satisfies the requirements for marriage (parental consent or whatever). Both can marry women, and neither can marry men. Similarly, a lesbian has the same rights as a heterosexual woman. Both can marry men, and neither can marry women. That's not discrimination according to sexual orientation, since people of both sexual orientations (holding sex constant) have exactly the same restrictions. The law is equally applied to gays and straights.

But it is discrimination against couples. Same-sex couples are not allowed something that opposite-sex couples are allowed. Does a couple have the kind of legal status to serve as a party in this kind of legal question? My suspicion is that it would be a major innovation in our legal system to treat a couple as a legal entity. I'm not sure that's the best strategy for same-sex couples to try if they want to make headway on this issue, but it is the easiest way to end up with a discrimination claim on the basis of sexual orientation.

I've long thought that the most promising case that bans on same-sex marriage are discrimination is to ignore sexual orientation entirely and to focus on a different basis of discrimination. Men are being discriminated against on the basis of their sex by not being allowed to marry people women are allowed to marry, and women are being discriminated against on the basis of their sex by not being allowed to marry people men can marry. If you ignore sexual orientation, as many social conservatives want to do, then this complaint gets a footing. Of course you have to think any discrimination on the basis of sex is wrong or explain why this particular one is if others aren't, which puts you back to square one if you want to draw a negative moral conclusion, but I'm ignoring that in this post.

Legal scholar Steven Calabresi, in a generally accurate discussion of what Obama could do to change the federal courts, offers the following very strange argument:

This raises the question of whether Mr. Obama can in good faith take the presidential oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution" as he must do if he is to take office. Does Mr. Obama support the Constitution as it is written, or does he support amendments to guarantee welfare? Is his provision of a "tax cut" to millions of Americans who currently pay no taxes merely a foreshadowing of constitutional rights to welfare, health care, Social Security, vacation time and the redistribution of wealth? Perhaps the candidate ought to be asked to answer these questions before the election rather than after.

Aside from the issue of whether Obama meant to be saying the Constitution should be amended to change this (See this post and its comments for discussion of what Obama really meant), I find this argument extremely strange. The Constitution gives provisions for when it can be amended. If I swore an oath to uphold it, one of the things I would be upholding would be the legitimate amendment process that the Constitution specifies. A president could come along and advocate an amendment to the Constitution that changes it in extremely significant ways, but as long as due process for amending is followed it doesn't seem as if anything has been done to undermine the Constitution. What's been done is to undermine the moral principles behind why the Constitution is as if currently is, but it's not a violation of the oath to uphold the Constitution if you use the Constitution's own method of amending it to propose a change that's pretty drastic. It itself envisions that possibility.


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