In late June 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States reached a decision that legalized gay marriage across all fifty states, thereby overturning the laws of many individual states that prevented the practice. The purpose of the present sample essay is to discuss this decision and its implications in greater depth.
Gay marriage becomes legal in all fifty states
- The essay will begin by describing the decision itself.
- Then, it will proceed to consider a potential antecedent to this decision; and after that, it will reflect on the legal implications.
- Next, the essay will analyze the effects that this decision will have on the very concept of marriage.
- Finally, it will discuss a potential future direction that marriage rights in the United States could potentially take on the basis of the decision in favor of gay marriage.
The Supreme Court decision
In the case Obergefell v. Hodges, decided on the 26th of June 2015, the Supreme Court made gay marriage a legal right across all the states of the nation. The decision was a close one, with a narrow 5-4 split within the Court deciding the matter in favor of the gay rights movement (see Liptak). What this means is that no state in the nation can any longer refuse to grant and/or recognize the marriages of same-sex couples.
Before the decision, a total of thirty-seven states within the nation already had laws that in some way recognized the legitimacy of gay marriages; most of these were passed over the last three years of so (see ProCon.org). Now, though, all fifty states will be compelled to recognize the legitimacy of such marriages. This is because the Supreme Court’s decision has occurred at the federal level, thereby effectively removing judgment about this issue from the prerogative of individual states.
The main legal reasoning in the case had to do with the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution (see United States). This amendment was originally passed after the Civil War in order to protect the rights of Black people. As Toobin has succinctly put it:
“The government confers a bundle of rights on individuals who choose to marry. The constitution’s guarantee of equal protection forbids any state from withholding those rights from the class of people who happen to be gay. End of story” (paragraph 4).
The judgment thus hinged on the basic constitutional principle of equal protection under the law. Essentially, the idea is that just as a person should not be denied access to legal protections on the basis of his race or skin color, he should also not be denied access to those protections on the basis of his sexual orientation.
If a person is homosexual, then he would only be able to access those protections through a relationship of marriage with another person of the same sex. Therefore, the conclusion was reached that such relationships must be granted legitimacy at the federal level.
A potential antecedent
In discussions about this recent legal decision, a potential antecedent that has sometimes been cited consists of the rather appropriately named case Loving v Virginia, in the year 1967: this was the case in which the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws (that is, laws forbidding interracial marriage) across the entire nation (Millman).
The analogy is fairly easy to understand. Less than a mere half century ago, there were still states within the United States that defined marriage in such a way that it was illegal to marry someone who did not belong to one’s own racial group; in the same way, until the recent ruling by the Supreme Court, it was illegal in many states to marry someone who did belong to one’s own gender group. The victory over anti-miscegenation laws, of course, has gone done in history as a major victory for civil rights within the nation.
The victory over laws against gay marriage is being conceptualized and celebrated in much the same way.
This logic is essentially cogent—insofar as one does not believe that gender has any more essential relationship with the concept of marriage than race. This point requires closer consideration. In retrospect, it seems self-evident that putting racial restrictions on marriage was immoral and absurd, and that the practice was rooted in pure and simple bigotry.
In this context, the question could be asked: in the future, will it seem self-evident that putting gendered restrictions on marriage was immoral and absurd? Another way of asking the same question would be to wonder whether gender is as superfluous as race to the definition of marriage, or whether gender has a more intrinsic relationship with the very nature of what marriage is.
The analogy with anti-miscegenation laws implies that it is bigotry to claim that two people of the same sex cannot get married, just as it was bigotry to claim that two people of different race could not get married. From this perspective, then, the recent Supreme Court ruling is an important step forward for civil rights.
The Court’s decision has important implications not only for civil rights, but also for the entire federal structure of American government. In particular, it must be recognized that the Court, which consists of unelected officials, has essentially ruled that a substantial cultural change must occur all across the nation. This is rather different from individual states deciding, one by one, to legalize gay marriage in a more grassroots.
It is this point that has likely prompted Justice Scalia to write, in a dissenting opinion, that he wanted “to call attention to this Court’s threat to American democracy” (qtd. in Dickinson, paragraph 16). Whatever else the recent decision is, it is also surely a major exercise of power and prerogative on the part of the Supreme Court. This becomes especially significant if one bears in mind that the ruling will have the effect of overriding many state laws actually established by elected legislators.
Of course, if one accepts the discourse that the ruling is in fact a matter of civil rights and the Fourteenth Amendment, then this concern would be a moot point. It is one of the explicit purposes of the Supreme Court to strike down unconstitutional laws. Nevertheless, the pragmatic concern does remain that given the way that gay marriage has now become a national civil right.
A great deal of resistance against and/or noncompliance with the federal ruling can be expected within states that have now had their laws overturned. As individual states are antagonistic toward the Supreme Court’s decision, full legal implementation of that decision could well prove to be a difficult and protracted process over the coming times.
It is now worth carefully considering what the Supreme Court’s decision has done to the concept of marriage. Traditionally, the concept of marriage has been strongly informed by a dimension of gender. This is because across virtually all societies and cultures in human history, the institution of marriage has been rooted in the complementarity inherent in biological sex and the role this plays in the perpetuation of the human species.
The Court’s decision, however, has now defined the concept of marriage in such a way that gender is no longer one of its essential dimensions: according to the majority opinion in the relevant case, marriage is exclusively defined by the emotional connection that prevails between one person and another, and not by the gender of either person involved in the relationship (see Liptak). This constitutes a significant destabilization of the very concept of marriage.
If the subject is pursued in an intellectually honest way, then it compels one to ask: if gender is inessential to marriage, then what else may also be inessential to the concept?
The next step: Polygamy?
A traditional conservative argument against gay marriage is what is known as the slippery slope: the idea is that if the concept of marriage is redefined in such a way as to allow for unions between persons of the same sex, then the concept would essentially disintegrate altogether, opening the door for all kinds of other unions between persons to qualify as marriage as well.
And it must be acknowledged, not only by the Right but also by the Left, that there is a powerful logical cogency to this train of thought. For example, gender has historically been a crucial dimension of the concept of marriage; and now within the United States, it no longer is. But if the dimension of gender can be dissociated from the concept marriage, then it logically follows that many other dimensions would also be dissociated from it.
The most important one in this regard is perhaps number: if it is not a sacred principle that marriage should be between a man and a woman, then it becomes difficult why the idea that marriage should be only be between two persons should be treated as any more sacred.
In truth, the arguments that have been made in favor of gay marriage could very easily now be applied to the advocacy of polygamy. There is no real conceptual distinction left between the one and the other, once the traditional concept of marriage has been undermined in such a significant way. In fact, polygamy actually does have some precedent in various cultures across history, whereas same-sex marriage is a far more radical concept that has virtually only emerged in the modern world over the past couple decades.
This effectively means that the jump to polygamy would be a considerably easier one to make than the jump to gay marriage that has already been made. As Greenfield, speaking in the name of the Left itself, has put it with admirable candor:
“We can fess up. We can admit our arguments in favor of marriage equality inexorably lead us to a broader battle in favor of allowing people to define their marriages, and their families, by their own lights” (last paragraph).
This is a necessary logical conclusion, irrespective of whether even liberals themselves find it to be an appealing one.
It may, however, well become an appealing one, over time. Writing for the magazine Politico mere hours after the Supreme Court’s decision, deBoer has provocatively argued that the time has come to legalize polygamy, and that this is in fact the next frontier for the marriage rights struggle. Of course, polygamy in this context by no means implies a traditional kind of model where (for example) one man may be married to a whole harem of women.
Rather, it could simply consist of any group of persons, both male and female, who feel that the emotions that characterize their bonds are such that it would be appropriate to identify that network of bonds as a polygamous marriage. This may not necessarily be a bad thing; polygamy is not necessarily something that must be feared or avoided. But good or bad, the simple truth is that the frontier to polygamy now stands wide open. The traditional concept of marriage has been radically destabilized, and unforeseen implications can be expected to almost certainly unfold over time.
In summary, this essay has consisted of a discussion of the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage and the implications of that decision. An important point that has emerged here is that the decision does in fact constitute a radical revisioning of what the concept of marriage means to the United States. On the one hand, this can be understood as a victory for civil rights.
On the other, however, it must be acknowledged that the decision has also opened up a conceptual Pandora’s box. The traditional concept of marriage, including the idea that it should be between only two persons, has always been implicitly based on religious premises. Now that that concept is gone, there is really no telling what else may emerge.
DeBoer, Fredrik. “It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy.” Politico. 26 Jun. 2015. Web. 27 Jun. 2015. 119469.html#.VY62fr6yhSV>.
Dickinson, Tim. “Hippies, Bigots, Polygamy: The Nastier Marriage Dissent Quotes.” Rolling Stone. 26 Jun. 2015. Web . 27 Jun. 2015. marriage-dissent-quotes-20150626?page=2>.
Greenfield, Kent. “The Slippery Slope to Polygamy and Incest.” American Prospect. 15 Jul. 2015. Web. 27 Jun. 2015. incest>.
Liptak, Adam. “Supreme Court Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage a Right Nationwide.” 26 Jun. 2015. Web. 27 Jun. 2015. sex-marriage.html?_r=0>.
Millman, Noah. “Gay Marriage and the Miscegenation Analogy.” American Conservative. 21 Apr. 2015. Web. 27 Jun. 2015. marriage-and-the-miscegenation-analogy/>.
ProCon.org. “50 States with Legal Gay Marriage.” Gay Marriage. 26 Jun. 2015. Web. 27 Jun. 2015. .
Toobin, Jeffrey. “God and Marriage Equality.” New Yorker. 26 Jun. 2015. Web. 27 Jun. 2015. .
United States. “14th Amendment.” U.S. Constitution. 1789. Web. 27 Jun. 2015. .