People For the American Way Foundation

The Sixth Circuit’s Flawed Marriage Ruling

A divided three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals this afternoon upheld the marriage bans of Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The majority opinion was written by Judge Jeffrey Sutton and joined by Deborah Cook, both put on the bench by George W. Bush. Clinton nominee Martha Craig Daughtrey dissented.

Among the many flaws in the majority's reasoning was the conclusion that Equal Protection violations are best resolved in the political sphere:

When the courts do not let the people resolve new social issues like this one, they perpetuate the idea that the heroes in these change events are judges and lawyers. Better in this instance, we think, to allow change through the customary political processes, in which the people, gay and straight alike, become the heroes of their own stories by meeting each other not as adversaries in a court system but as fellow citizens seeking to resolve a new social issue in a fair-minded way.

But this is a case where a discreet group, long a target of discrimination, found itself once again victimized by the majority acting through the democratic process. The Equal Protection Clause exists to protect vulnerable minorities from being victimized by hostile majorities using the "customary political process."

As the dissent states:

The author of the majority opinion has drafted what would make an engrossing TED Talk or, possibly, an introductory lecture in Political Philosophy. But as an appellate court decision, it wholly fails to grapple with the relevant constitutional question in this appeal: whether a state's constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage violates equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, the majority sets up a false premise—that the question before us is "who should decide?"—and leads us through a largely irrelevant discourse on democracy and federalism.

Another flaw was Sutton's dismissal of the possibility that there was animus in the wave of 2004 and 2006 ballot initiatives in which voters put bans into their state constitutions. He wrote that if the constitutional bans had been unusual, that might trigger suspicion of animus. But he found nothing unusual here:

Neither was the decision to place the definition of marriage in a State's constitution unusual, nor did it otherwise convey the kind of malice or unthinking prejudice the Constitution prohibits. Nineteen States did the same thing during that period [between 2004 and 2006]. And if there was one concern animating the initiatives, it was the fear that the courts would seize control over an issue that people of good faith care deeply about. [emphasis added, internal citation removed]

If that had been the motivation, the constitutional amendments would not have banned gays and lesbians from marrying, but would have simply said that the legislature had the authority to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples. That would have removed the court's authority in the matter. In fact, that is exactly how Hawaii amended its constitution in the 1990s (which is how it recently was able to adopt marriage equality without re-amending its constitution).

But the Hawaii model of inequality was not nearly extreme enough for the advocates of the bans devised and aggressively pushed in 2004 and 2006. They went far, far beyond that. They tied the legislatures' hands and ensured that gays and lesbians would forever be prevented from achieving marriage equality through democratic means.

The ordinary voters who voted for the bans surely had numerous motivations. But it seems like magical thinking on Judge Sutton's part to assume that there was no animus motivating the architects and enthusiastic proponents of such an extreme and permanent exclusion of a targeted minority.

The ones fighting most forcefully for the bans a decade ago were the same organizations and people who had spent years opposing every advance in LGBT equality, whether those advances came from the courts, from legislatures, in classrooms, or in popular culture. That history is vital to understanding their motivations ten years ago, just as it is vital in addressing their current claims that LGBT equality violates their religious liberty.