Was the California Supreme Court Right in Legalizing Gay Marriage?
Previously published on May 12, 2010
The California Supreme Court decision to lift the ban on homosexual marriage has brought further conflict to an already controversial issue. In part, this newfound tension is a result of the fact that the Court has ruled against a majority of Californians who voted in favor of the ban; however, much of the anger is unfounded as it is the duty of the Courts to protect the legitimate rights of each and every citizen without regard to the will of the majority. The true conflict in this issue continues to be on whether state-sanctioned homosexual marriage violates the First Amendment rights of a majority belonging to religious faiths that condemn homosexual behavior or State bans on homosexual marriage infringe upon the Fourteenth Amendment protections that extend to homosexual couples.
The difficulty with the social institute of marriage is that it is both a religious and legal commitment. As for the legal component of marriage, equal protection, which is provided for under the Fourteenth Amendment, guarantees every eligible adult US citizen, including a homosexual, has the freedom to enter into a marriage contract with all the legal rights and privileges afforded to every other married couple by government. On the other hand, the First Amendment ensures government will not interfere in an individual's religious beliefs without a compelling state interest to do so. The conflict between the rights granted by First and Fourteenth Amendments rises from the fact that government cannot infringe upon one segment of the population's First Amendment rights in order to grant another segment's Fourteenth Amendment rights and vice versa, but must instead protect all the rights of every citizen simultaneously.
Because government affords married individuals certain legal rights and privileges, the Fourteenth Amendment ensures law cannot discriminate against a segment of consenting adults, i.e. homosexuals, by denying such individuals the right of legal marriage. By either outright denying homosexuals the right to marriage or imposing a "separate-but-equal" standard where law defines marriage in terms of a man and woman with the unions of homosexuals legally defined as domestic partnerships or civil unions, government discriminates against homosexuals. On the other hand, because the concepts of legal and religious marriage have been muddled into one concept, recognizing homosexual unions as a form of marriage forces government to improperly redefine the religious meaning of marriage.
Although the illegitimate convergence of religious and legal marriage was born out of a tradition based on a long history, it was not until controversial issues, such as homosexual marriage, began to test the religious boundaries of marriage that a need to distinguish between the two commitments developed. In the vast majority of religions, marriage is a sacred right between a man and woman while many faiths view homosexual behavior as improper and unacceptable, so homosexual marriage is a concept that directly conflicts with the religious ideals behind marriage. Meanwhile, there are numerous heterosexual couples, which do not belong to religious faiths, but would like to enjoy the privileges afforded to married couples by government without having to undergo a religious commitment. By continuing to treat marriage as a singular concept, government violates the First Amendment rights of religious and nonreligious individuals.
The California Supreme Court's ruling correctly identified the State legislature's total disregard for equal protection, but failed to resolve the issue completely as the decision does not adequately address First Amendment questions. It is likely the only means of guaranteeing homosexual couples their right to equal protection under the Law and the religious freedoms of many more would be for government to ensure a broader and clearer separation of the religious and legal aspects of marriage. Furthermore, the only means of doing this may be to make a distinction between marriage granted by a religious ceremony and the legal privileges guaranteed to those in a legally sanctioned union by redefining the legal aspect of marriage as a civil union for both heterosexual and homosexual partnerships. The failure of the California ban on homosexual marriage has truly demonstrated government must take greater steps to protect the rights of all citizens, but the legal issue of homosexual marriage will likely require further legislation and legal intervention before the conflict can be properly resolved.
In passing future legislation, government officials must be careful to protect the rights of minorities when ensuring the moral majority is satisfied while the Courts must tread lightly when ruling on moral legislation to assurance law does not overstep its power. The legal system exists to ensure a majority remains in power while minorities enjoy the same freedoms and protections as the majority. The greater implication of cases dealing with moral legislation, such as homosexual marriage, is that a great amount of legislation is based on seemingly arbitrary moral standards, such as laws on voting, alcohol consumption, age of sexual consent, incest, and many, many more, so completely denying our legislators the ability to act under the moral standards of our society would tear our legal system apart. As the United States is a democracy, the majority does have the right to set the moral standards of the nation so long as minorities are not disenfranchised in the process. How future cases involving laws aimed at preventing homosexual marriage are decided will determine whether or not the Courts are respecting the will of majority while ensuring the freedoms of a minority.
In many respects, homosexual marriage is about equalizing the social standing of the homosexual community with the rest of the American culture. Beyond the legal aspects of the homosexual marriage, opponents, who are reluctant to honor all the Constitutional rights of homosexual, believe proponents are using the legal system to bolster the social standing of homosexuals and, since the homosexual lifestyle is incapability with their lifestyles, they view the rising social standing of homosexuals as a force diminishing their social standing. Whether or not this threat is legitimate, both sides are using the legal system to decide the outcome of this social struggle. The unfortunate result of pulling the legal and political system into the conflict is that both sides will undermine the legitimacy of the Courts and government while heterosexuals, who enjoy the right to reject homosexual behavior as a valid lifestyle, and homosexuals, who seek validation for the rights that are necessary for them to maintain their lifestyle, both need the consistency of Law to ensure their beliefs are protected.
The duties of legislators and the Courts are to provide equal protections and privileges to all US citizens without regard to personal bias, but it is improper for any political or legal body to use this authority to influence the religious beliefs of individuals. Government must provide for the legal rights of the homosexual community, but government authority cannot be used to stifle the moral views of individuals on homosexual behavior and force social acceptance of such lifestyle choices. On the other hand, the Law cannot be used to disenfranchise the homosexual community as doing so undermines the rights and privileges guaranteed to all. Moreover, the Courts must use their judicial power to safeguard this democracy for both minorities and the majority while it must also fulfill its duty to the people by honoring the will of the majority. The California Supreme Court decision has helped push the democratic process along, but balancing the rights of homosexuals with the rights of those opposed to homosexual marriage will take quite a few years to resolve while the overall conflict will only come to an end when the whole of society decides whether or not it can accept the homosexual lifestyle.