Marriage Equality and the Supreme Court

We’ve asked our staff to help us unpack the complex justice issues that we’re working on. Using our General Synod pronouncements as the basis for these reflections, we hope to provide insights into the issues you care about that are rooted in our shared faith, and can inform your advocacy efforts. This month, Michael Schuenemeyer, our Executive for Health and Wholeness Advocacy, provides us an in-depth look the issue of marriage equality and the major cases coming before the Supreme Court.

Marriage Equality and the Supreme Court

Mike_S.jpgHistoric events on March 26 and 27 will mark the journey to civil marriage equality, when the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two major cases.  One case concerns Prop 8 (Hollingsworth v. Perry), the 2008 California ballot measure that banned same sex marriage.  The other case concerns section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) (United States v. Windsor), which states that the federal government will only recognize marriage between one man and one woman.  Lower U.S. district and appellate courts have ruled both Prop 8 and Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional.

The General Synod of the United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries and both of the UCC Conferences in California have joined “Friends of the Court” (amicus) briefs supporting equal marriage rights in one or both of the cases.  In fact, in each case, these bodies have signed-on to similar briefs at every level of the court proceedings.  The basis for supporting the freedom to marry in these cases comes primarily from the 2005 General Synod resolution, “Equal Marriage Rights for All.”  Building on previous pronouncements that person are entitled to full civil liberties and equal protection under the law without discrimination related to sexual orientation and gender identity, the General Synod:

  • Affirmed equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declared that the government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage;
  • Affirmed equal access to the basic rights, institutional protections and quality of life conferred by the recognition of marriage; and
  • Urged the church to work against legislation, including constitutional amendments, which denies civil marriage rights to couples based on gender.

As people of faith we look to the example of Jesus of Nazareth, who provides a model of radically inclusive love and abundant welcome for all. We hope you will join us in prayer, reflection, and action as we reach this major crossroads in the work for equality.

Understanding the Cases

Hollingsworth v. Perry (Prop 8)

In May of 2008, the California Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional Proposition 22, a ballot initiative that was passed by voters in March 2000 and that added 14 words to the California Family Code: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”.

The court’s ruling allowed same sex marriage to begin in California June 16, 2000.  Immediately on the heels of the court’s decision, Proposition 8, a ballot initiative to amend the California constitution with the same language, was qualified for the California ballot.  Voters passed Prop 8 in the general election November 2008 and the state stopped same sex marriages after November 5. 

Prop 8 was first challenged in the California Supreme Court which upheld the measure and ruled the same sex marriages performed (about 18,000) were also valid.  Prop 8 was then challenged in the U.S. 9th Circuit District Court.  In August 2010, Judge Vaughn Walker issued a comprehensive ruling that declared Prop 8 violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Judge Walker’s decision identified 80 findings of fact which included that, as far as the state is concerned, marriage is a civil, not a religious matter.  The court said, “Marriage is the state recognition and approval of a couple’s choice to live with each other, to remain committed to one another and to form a household based on their own feelings about one another and to join in an economic partnership and support one another and any dependents.”  It found that same sex couples receive the same tangible and intangible benefits from marriage that opposite-sex couples receive, yet the sole purpose of Prop 8 was to prevent same sex couples from marrying. 

Although California has domestic partnership with similar rights, the court found that domestic partnership does not carry the same social meaning as marriage; the rights of domestic partnership are not the same; and in establishing domestic partnerships the state intended to confer a lesser status to same sex couples.  The court found no evidence that the state has a legitimate interest in limiting marriage to one man and one woman. 

The ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling.  In a 2–1 decision the 3 panel court declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional.  The majority opinion said, “Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.” “The Constitution simply does not allow for laws of this sort.”  The court found this to be a distinct constitutional violation because same sex couples were given the right to marry it deprived an existing right without a legitimate reason.  The court said Prop 8 had no effect on child-rearing since it made no change to laws governing parenting and adoption, nor would it affect the procreative behavior of opposite-sex couples.  The majority opinion concluded that “the People of California may not, consistent with the Federal Constitution, add to their state constitution a provision that has no more practical effect than to strip gays and lesbians of their right to use the official designation that the State and society give to committed relationships, thereby adversely affecting the status and dignity of the members of a disfavored class.

Oral arguments will be heard in this case on Tuesday, March 26. 

United States v. Windsor (DOMA)

In 2007, Edith “Edie” Windsor and Thea Spyer, residents of New York, married in Toronto, Ontario, after 40 years of romantic partnership.  Thea died in 2009, at which time New York legally recognized same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. After Thea’s death, Edie was required to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes on her inheritance.  She would have paid no taxes if federal law accorded their marriage equal status with heterosexual marriages (as does the State of New York).

The legal process for this case has been complicated by the determination of the Department of Justice (DOJ) that section 3 of DOMA violates the equal protection guarantees under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and therefore the DOJ would not defend the law.  Congress then stepped in to defend the law with a Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG).  In June 2012, Judge Barbara S. Jones agreed with the DOJ, ruling that section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional because it violates the equal protection guarantees of the Fifth Amendment and ordered Windsor receive the tax refund due her.   

Although the Justice Department agreed with the ruling, it filed a notice of appeal on June 14, 2012, in order to facilitate BLAG’s defense.  On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling, becoming the first federal court of appeals decision to hold that laws classifying people based on sexual orientation should be subject to intermediate scrutiny. 

The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which decided to take the case. In addition to the question whether section 3 of the DOMA violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection, the court also asked two other questions: whether the government’s agreement with the Second Circuit’s decision deprived the court of jurisdiction to hear the case, and whether BLAG has standing, i.e., the legal right to be involved in the case.

Oral Arguments will be heard on Wednesday, March 27. 

The U.S. Supreme Court usually releases its rulings in mid-late June or early July. 

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Categories: Column Getting to the Root of It

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