Much has been written in the last few days about the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Obergefell v Hodges 576 US ___ (2015) (26 June 2015) that there is a previously unknown “right” of same sex marriage in the United States Constitution. In this brief comment I do not propose to analyse in great detail the Constitutional basis for the decision of the majority of 5 Justices, written by Kennedy J, nor the trenchant critique of those reasons offered by the 4 dissenting Justices. Others who are much more versed in US Constitutional law have started to do that already- see, e.g., the helpful collation of reactions from scholars and commentators at the excellent First Things website. But I will try to summarise the decision, before turning to one of the main unresolved issues flowing from it: what are its implications for religious freedom in the US? I will then briefly offer some thoughts on how these issues might play out in Australia.
The Majority Decision
Kennedy J offers a keen insight into the logic of the movement for same sex marriage around the Western world in his opening paragraph:
The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity. (slip op, at 1-2)
The core of the movement is the idea of “freedom”, and not just freedom classically defined as freedom from external restraint (the dissent of Thomas J outlines in some detail this traditional understanding of liberty), but the freedom to “define and express” one’s “identity”. With those opening words there was never any doubt where this judgment was going: to the post-modern world, nothing is “fixed” or “static”, all must be “fluid” and “dynamic”, including of course sexual preference and even gender.
And yet… even here we see a problem. For of course to make the point that we must radically redefine an institution that has formed the basis for society in all human cultures for millennia, Kennedy J wants to appeal to the fact that homosexual persons in fact are “trapped” into an identity not of their own making at all. So we read later of the fact that the “immutable nature” of the homosexual petitioners (slip op, at 4) “dictates” that they must find fulfilment in marriage to a person of the same sex. On the evidence of psychiatry, we later read that “sexual orientation is both a normal expression of human sexuality and immutable.” (slip op, at 8, emphasis added) So, trapped as they are in this unchangeable homosexual nature, Kennedy J for the majority holds that the law must allow them to marry others like themselves, or else be condemned to a “life of loneliness” (slip op, at 14: “Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there”; see also the moving conclusion at slip op, 28: “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness.”)
There is much of this emotive language, and stress on the personal pain felt by the petitioners in their relationships not being recognised as marriage. And of course if indeed the predominant purpose of marriage is to allow human beings to find solace and fulfilment in the love of another (but of course, why only one other?), then it seems grossly unjust to deny this institution to same sex couples. We see that early on in his judgment Kennedy J stresses this:
Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations. (slip op, at 3).
Others have asked, of course, that if emotional fulfilment is what is required, why does the State become involved at all? As the dissenters note, the fact is that marriage has never been seen simply as a vehicle for the benefit of the two parties. It is an institution which is directed toward the regulation of sexual relationships between men and women, because such relationships regularly result in the birth of children, who long experience teaches us are usually best off when raised from birth by their biological parents in an enduring family. Yet it is well into the judgment before Kennedy J notes that marriages relate to children, and where he does so it is to say that same sex marriage protects the rights of children of same sex couples (see slip op, at 14-15). Indeed, traditional marriage laws, we are told in an astonishing remark, “harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples”! Never mind that in any same sex family where children are present, all of the children will have been deprived, in some cases deliberately and carefully, of the companionship and love of one of their biological parents.
Without going into all the details, the majority judgment finds in the words of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, that “no State shall ‘deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law'”, a new “liberty” for same sex couples to marry, in an example of what is called “substantive due process”. Roberts CJ in dissent notes that it was precisely this sort of Constitutional “magic trick” that was used by the Supreme Court in the infamous Dred Scott v Sandford 19 How 393 (1857) decision to find an implied property right that could not be interfered with to set slaves free; and precisely the same logic that was used in the almost equally discredited Lochner v New York 198 US 45 (1905) decision to undermine labour laws aimed at achieving fair conditions for workers, again finding a “right” in employers to not be deprived of income by interference with their “freedom of contract”. Since those cases later decisions had tried to carefully hedge around the ability of the Court to “discover” new rights based on their intuitions of fairness, in cases such as Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U. S. 702, 721 (1997). But at slip op 18 the majority turn their back on the checks and balances in that decision and strike out to find their ideal of a new right.
The right, they say, is also supported by the “Equal Protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (see slip op at 19) in some mysterious and not quite defined way. Indeed, to an Australian lawyer a number of the passages in the majority decision are more than slightly reminiscent of Dennis Denutio in the classic legal comedy movie The Castle saying when challenged as to what part of the Constitution he was relying on: “It’s the vibe!”
In the end, however they get there, the result is clear:
These considerations lead to the conclusion that the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty. The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. (slip op, at 22)
And “marry”, of course, means marry someone of the same sex.
There is no space or time here to do justice to the 4 dissenting opinions, each of which in their own way offers clear and, to my mind, compelling reasons why the majority are wrong. Roberts CJ, as noted, compares the constitutional “logic” of the majority with that of previous decisions later regarded as clearly wrong. He stresses that the Court is not a legislature, and should not be taking to itself the role of making a fundamental change in an ages-old social institution.
The Chief Justice is also very clear: such logic as is present cannot be confined to the decision to allow same sex couples to marry each other. The argument from “loneliness” and emotional support inevitably leads to the next stage, which is the recognition of polygamous relationships as valid marriages. Nothing in the majority judgment, apart from, as his Honour notes, a sprinkling of the number “two” at points where it plays no part in the reasoning, prevents this next step.
Although the majority randomly inserts the adjective “two” in various places, it offers no reason at all why the two-person element of the core definition of marriage may be preserved while the man-woman element may not. Indeed, from the standpoint of history and tradition, a leap from opposite-sex marriage to same-sex marriage is much greater than one from a two-person union to plural unions, which have deep roots in some cultures around the world. If the majority is willing to take the big leap, it is hard to see how it can say no to the shorter one. (slip op, at 20)
And, as the Chief Justice notes, there is a decision from Utah at the moment which may present this issue very shortly: see Brown v Buhman, 947 F Supp 2d 1170 (Utah 2013), appeal pending.
Scalia J is his usual scathing self, well worth reading about the threat to democracy by the way the majority reasons. Thomas J analyses the historical roots of the idea of “liberty” and points out how far the majority decision has moved from this concept as referring to freedom from government action. His Honour’s reference to Magna Carta (slip op, 4) rang many bells with me after the recent Oxford conference on this topic. He notes, strikingly, that in the 35 States of the US where the question of recognition of same sex marriage has been put to the people of the State in a referendum, 32 of those States have voted to retain the traditional model of male/female marriage- slip op, 14. Yet these democratic decisions are obliterated by the ruling of 5 Justices.
Alito J at slip op 3 helpfully identifies the focus of the majority decision on the fundamental purpose of marriage as “to promote the well-being of those who choose to marry”. But, his Honour notes at 4:
This understanding of marriage, which focuses almost entirely on the happiness of persons who choose to marry, is shared by many people today, but it is not the traditional one. For millennia, marriage was inextricably linked to the one thing that only an opposite-sex couple can do: procreate.
Adherents to different schools of philosophy use different terms to explain why society should formalize marriage and attach special benefits and obligations to persons who marry. Here, the States defending their adherence to the traditional understanding of marriage have explained their position using the pragmatic vocabulary that characterizes most American political discourse. Their basic argument is that States formalize and promote marriage, unlike other fulfilling human relationships, in order to encourage potentially procreative conduct to take place within a lasting unit that has long been thought to provide the best atmosphere for raising children. They thus argue that there are reasonable secular grounds for restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples.
As his Honour goes on to say, slip op 5, even if this model of marriage is not universally accepted in Western societies, surely a State may decide that they do not wish to “contribute to marriage’s further decay” by further departing from the ideal.
Religious Freedom implications
What, then, are the implications for religious freedom flowing from this decision? Here again there is a strong division between Kennedy J for the majority, and the dissenters.
Kennedy J devotes one short paragraph to the issue, at slip op 27, almost literally an afterthought:
Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advo- cate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.
The choice of language seems deliberate. Rather than a robust assertion of a right to the “free exercise” of religion, the literal words of the First Amendment, we see an attenuated concession that believers may “advocate” and “teach” against recognition of same sex marriage. The dissenters pick this up.
Roberts CJ puts it so clearly that I can do little better than provide an extended quote:
Today’s decision… creates serious questions about religious liberty. Many good and decent people oppose same-sex marriage as a tenet of faith, and their freedom to exercise religion is—unlike the right imagined by the majority— actually spelled out in the Constitution. Amdt. 1.
Respect for sincere religious conviction has led voters and legislators in every State that has adopted same-sex marriage democratically to include accommodations for religious practice. The majority’s decision imposing same- sex marriage cannot, of course, create any such accommodations. The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage. Ante, at 27. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to “exercise” religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses.
Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage. See Tr. of Oral Arg. on Question 1, at 36–38. There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.
The other members of the Court comment in similar fashion- see Thomas J at slip op 14-15:
Aside from undermining the political processes that protect our liberty, the majority’s decision threatens the religious liberty our Nation has long sought to protect…
In our society, marriage is not simply a governmental institution; it is a religious institution as well… Today’s decision might change the former, but it cannot change the latter. It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.
The majority appears unmoved by that inevitability. It makes only a weak gesture toward religious liberty in a single paragraph, ante, at 27. And even that gesture indicates a misunderstanding of religious liberty in our Nation’s tradition. Religious liberty is about more than just the protection for “religious organizations and persons . . . as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.” Ibid. Religious liberty is about freedom of action in matters of religion generally, and the scope of that liberty is directly correlated to the civil restraints placed upon religious practice.
And in a telling footnote to the above quote, his Honour notes that under the terrible regime where racially mixed marriages were forbidden, one State at least made it a criminal offence for a clergyman to celebrate such a marriage, even where his religion allowed him to. The suggestion is that, conversely, under a same sex marriage regime some States at least may try to force clergy to be engaged in celebration of such marriages, contrary to their faith.
Alito J is also unusually blunt:
Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reas- sure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. Ante, at 26–27. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.
Implications for Australia
I have written in a previous post about the current state of play as far as recognition of same sex marriage in Australia is concerned. In short, unlike the US, “marriage” is a head of legislative power given to the Federal Parliament, not left to the States, and even though it is a “concurrent” power (which can be exercised by either State or Federal Parliaments), any valid exercise by the Federal Parliament will override any conflicting State (or Territory) law. At the moment the clear definition of “marriage” in s 5 of the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) precludes recognition of same sex marriage at any level in Australia, a result confirmed by the decision of the High Court of Australia in The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory  HCA 55, (2013) 250 CLR 441. (For a detailed comment on that decision see my paper here.)
This situation could change, then, if legislation amending the Marriage Act were to pass Federal Parliament. As at the date of writing the Government parties have a firm policy opposing such a change, which they went into the last election promising to adhere to. The main Opposition Party, the ALP, has a policy allowing its members a free vote on the issue, although recently one of the senior leaders of the party suggested that it should make support for same sex marriage a binding plank of party policy in the near future. Minor parties differ in their views among themselves. Press reports suggest that if the governing Liberal/National Coalition were to allow a free vote of its members, some at least would support a change. But at the moment it is unclear whether there would be a majority for the change even if all members of Parliament were able to vote freely.
There have been various pieces of legislation introduced on the topic as Private Member’s Bills, none of which have succeeded, most of which have not even come to a vote. The most recent was introduced by Bill Shorten, Leader of the Opposition, in the form of the Marriage Amendment (Marriage Equality) Bill 2015 (introduced on 1 June 2015).
From the point of view of religious freedom, the latest Bill does at least make a gesture in that direction by providing, in Schedule 1 clauses 5 & 6, an amendment to s 47 of the Marriage Act 1961 which aims to make it clear that a minister of religion may not be obliged (by the Marriage Act or any other Act such as a law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination) to solemnise a same sex marriage. But this minimal protection does not go very far in dealing with the sort of issues that are noted by the dissenters in Obergefell and have become more apparent in recent years: the questions as to whether ordinary believers may be required to compromise their principles by providing support for, and celebration of, same sex weddings. (See my previous posts on some of the “wedding industry” cases, here and here.) Other questions include whether religious institutions generally will be allowed to continue to operate in the public sphere if their view of the morality of homosexual conduct is so contradictory to the new “sexual orthodoxy” which would be represented by Parliament granting the status of “marriage” to same sex couples.
Will the decision of the US Supreme Court have an impact on the law of Australia? Not directly, but the decision (like the recent referendum in Ireland) may have the pragmatic effect of further persuading some members of Parliament that the “tide of history” is sweeping toward same sex marriage, and they should jump on their boards. There is also an interesting comparison between the logic of the majority in Obergefell and the reasoning of the High Court of Australia in Cth v ACT noted above. In the High Court the court (in a move I have critiqued in my previously noted paper) held that the Constitutional head of power to legislate on “marriage” includes the power to recognise same sex marriage, and part of their logic was that “incidental” features of marriage had changed over the years. Similarly, in Obergefell, Kennedy J for the majority argues that marriage has “evolved over time” (slip op, at 6) because previous features such as the law of coverture have dropped away.
In my paper on the Cth v ACT decision I note at p 8 that the High Court settles on a “core” meaning of the term which manages to include both polygamy and same sex relationships as part of a shifting meaning. But the question remains, both in Australia and the US, as to how one decides what is part of the “core” meaning of the term, and what is an inessential accident? And, one might add, not only “how” does one decide, but “who” decides? In the US the minority’s critique of the legislative-like move made by the majority in Obergefell is very convincing. In Australia we may at least have the matter decided by a Parliamentary body. But in my own view (and I think there is also a plausible legal argument to this effect as well as good policy reasons), such a fundamental change to a foundational social institution should really be settled by agreement of the people as a whole, rather than by the shifting forces of politics in Parliament.
Even if a referendum were held, of course, I would personally oppose such a change. But at least a referendum would have the benefit of allowing the extent of community support for the change to be properly assessed, and for its supporters to seek to persuade its opponents of the rightness of their cause. Such an opportunity, as Roberts CJ tellingly points out in his decision, has now been lost after the majority ruling in Obergefell:
Indeed, however heartened the proponents of same-sex marriage might be on this day, it is worth acknowledging what they have lost, and lost forever: the opportunity to win the true acceptance that comes from persuading their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause.