Before the Supreme Court made marriage equality legal in California and invalidated the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June, there was more than a bit of concern among advocates for the rights lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans. The fear was that all the momentum leading up to the ruling would die after the ruling. Thursday’s decision by Virginia’s attorney general to not defend the commonwealth’s ban on same-sex marriage against legal challenge is the latest proof that the fear was unfounded. If anything, the court breathed new life into the movement.
“The Supreme Court is clear: The United States Constitution is the law of the land, the supreme law of the land,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) said at a news conference. “I believe the freedom to marry is a fundamental right, and I intend to ensure that Virginia is on the right side of history and the right side of the law.” The last time Virginia was at the center of a debate on marriage, it lost on the law and on the judgment of history.
The 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia that struck down laws that banned interracial marriage was clear.
This case presents a constitutional question never addressed by this Court: whether a statutory scheme adopted by the State of Virginia to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. For reasons which seem to us to reflect the central meaning of those constitutional commands, we conclude that these statutes cannot stand consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment.
Forty-six years later, the high court overturned DOMA because it violated the Fourteenth Amendment. And now Herring is using the 14th and the Loving ruling to bolster his position in Old Dominion.
Virginia’s law denying the right to marry to same-sex couples cannot escape strict scrutiny on the theory that only “traditional” marriage is “fundamental.” The nearly identical argument was rejected in Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), where the Court struck down Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage despite the absence of any traditional right to interracial marriage. Indeed, Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage was unconstitutional despite that it had been in effect since “the colonial period.”
Loving teaches that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right to marry even if the way in which it is practiced would have surprised the framers or made them uncomfortable.
Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in June, state and federal courts in Oklahoma (January), Utah (December) New Mexico (December) and New Jersey (September) have ruled in favor of marriage equality. The decisions in Utah and Oklahoma are stayed until the appeals are exhausted. U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby stirred up a nest of trouble in the Beehive State when he struck down Utah’s ban on gay marriage without issuing a stay until the state’s inevitable appeal. More than 1,300 same-sex couples tied the knot over the ensuing 17 days. While they are recognized as legally married under federal law, they are not under state law.
This is a terrible legal limbo for those Utah couples. But I remain convinced that this is not a bad thing. And I say this precisely because of opening line in the Loving decision. You read right over it, didn’t you? Look at it again.
This case presents a constitutional question never addressed by this Court: whether a statutory scheme adopted by the State of Virginia to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Swap “sexual orientation” for “racial classifications” and you have the “constitutional question never addressed” by the Supreme Court. Those couples in Utah and those in other jurisdictions will demand equal protection under the law. That’s why Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson told Buzzfeed’s Chris Geidner this week that the pathway to marriage equality nationwide “is about setting the stage for a successful return to the Supreme Court.” If there is to be a constitutional right to marry for loving same-sex couples, then a case or cases must come before the justices that ask them that very question directly. Never fear, they’re coming.
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