AARON N. TAYLOR, ESQ.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges extended the right to marry to same-sex couples and touched off a passionate debate. Core to the discussion has been the extent to which the decision sanctions behavior that many find in violation of certain religious principles.
Lost in the discussion was the fact that religious beliefs are irrelevant to the Court’s decision – and indeed the legal concept of marriage.
In the eyes of the state, marriage is an amoral contract. There is no emotion; no meanings deeper than the relevant legal parameters. The deeper meanings reside in the hearts of the individuals entering into the union.
The state could care less if it is a marriage of mere convenience or the most solemn expression of the deepest love. As long as the couple meets the legal requirements of entering into a marriage contract, the state recognizes the union.
The legal requirements were the crux of the Obergefell case. Specifically, the court had to consider whether denying the right to marry due to gender sameness violated the U.S. Constitution.
The Constitution, while finding inspiration in Judeo-Christian values, is a secular document. The oft-cited but underappreciated concept of separation of church and state is embodied in the First Amendment. While individuals are free to make faith-based decisions in their personal lives, the state must be dispassionate in the application of laws and the provision of public benefits.
About the benefits
Public benefits are the main reason why same-sex couples fought to have their unions recognized by the state. Our laws incentivize marriage in many ways. Our tax code affords married couples benefits unavailable to unmarried individuals. Public benefits such as Social Security and Medicare flow more broadly to legally married couples as well.
Same-sex couples have long had their unions celebrated and blessed by loved ones and religious traditions. But in many states, they were shut out of the tangible public benefits that have made marriage a highly effective means of acquiring mutual rights and building wealth.
A major concern among critics, including the four justices who dissented, is the extent to which the decision imposes same-sex marriage on individuals who find it offensive. This concern puzzles me.
The decision is binding on the state (and its agents) only. It does not force ministers to officiate same-sex marriage ceremonies. Individuals are still free to conceptualize marriage in whatever forms their hearts and minds desire. The decision is about the extension of public rights, not the imposition of private beliefs.
There’s an inherent danger in couching the extension of rights to others as a threat to one’s own rights.
This has long been a trope used to justify the continued oppression of disfavored groups.
Jim Crow was defended as essential to the preservation of White rights and dignity. Its eventual dismantling and the extension of equal rights to Black Americans are still seen by many as infringements. We tend to call those people racists. Therefore, I am troubled when I hear similar arguments made to justify excluding same-sex couples from the potential windfall that is state-recognized marriage.
Fundamentally, Obergefell is about fairness and equality in the eyes of the law. It is about fostering a society where differences are respected, even if not embraced. It is about holding the state accountable to everyone.
It may not be the sign of the apocalypse some seem to believe it is, but it is a profound step towards the more perfect union we are still seeking.
Aaron N. Taylor is a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. He wrote this article for the St. Louis American.