by Jeremy Leaming
In a striking, though perhaps short-lived, victory for marriage equality, a federal appeals court panel invalidated California’s infamous Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that had overturned same-sex marriage in the state.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled 2 -1 today that the anti-equality measure “served no purpose, and no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians,” the Los Angeles Times reports. The Ninth Circuit majority concluded that Prop. 8 subverts the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause.
Prop. 8 was passed, with the backing of religious right organizations, not long after the California Supreme Court ruled that a right to wed could not be denied to same-sex couples, and that doing so would violate the equal protection rights of lesbians and gay men. Prop. 8 amended the state constitution to bar same-sex marriage.
The majority opinion in Perry v. Brown, written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt (pictured) upheld a lower federal court ruling by retired federal judge, Vaughn R. Walker, which invalidated Prop. 8.
“Proposition 8 worked a singular and limited change to the California Constitution: it stripped same-sex couples of the right to have their committed relationships recognized by the State with the designation of ‘marriage,’ which the state constitution had previously guaranteed them, while leaving in place all of their other rights and responsibilities as partners – rights and responsibilities that are identical to those of married spouses and form an integral part of the marriage relationship,” Reinhardt wrote.
Prop. 8 also resulted in an ignoble state constitutional rule that protected marriage only for straight couples, Reinhardt said.
“In adopting the amendment, the People simply took the designation of ‘marriage’ away from lifelong same-sex partnerships, and with it the State’s authorization of that official status and the societal approval that comes with it,” Reinhardt wrote.
He continued that, “By emphasizing Proposition 8’s limited effect, we do not mean to minimize the harm that this change in the law caused same-sex couples and their families. To the contrary, we emphasize the extraordinary significance of the official designation of ‘marriage.’ That designation is important because ‘marriage’ is the name that society gives to the relationship that matters most between two adults. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but to the couples desiring to enter into a committed lifelong relationship, a marriage by the name of ‘registered domestic partnership’ does not.”
Reinhardt concluded, “It is enough to say that Proposition 8 operates with no apparent purpose but to impose on gays and lesbians, through the public law, a majority’s private disapproval of them and their relationships, by taking away from them the official designation of ‘marriage,’ with its societally recognized status. Proposition 8 therefore violates the Equal Protection Clause.”
Earlier in the opinion Reinhardt, in more detail, explained what Prop. 8 worked to strip from gays and lesbians.
“It is the designation of ‘marriage’ itself,” Reinhardt wrote, “that expresses validation, by the state and the community, and that serves as a symbol, like a wedding ceremony or a wedding ring, of something profoundly important.”
Reinhardt also noted that California’s Prop. 8 measure was not the first time a state had taken action to diminish “the rights of gays and lesbians under state law.”
He cited Colorado’s Amendment 2 adopted in 1992 barring localities from protecting gays and lesbians against discrimination. The law, Reinhardt wrote, was eventually invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court as a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause. The high court in Romer v. Evans said Amendment 2 violated the equal protection clause because it was “not within our constitutional tradition to enact laws of this sort,” which targets “a certain class of citizens for disfavored legal status.”
The Los Angeles Times noted that supporters of Prop. 8, a group called “ProtectMarriage,” could appeal today’s opinion to the entire Ninth Circuit or “go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
In a 2010 ACS Issue Brief, University of Southern California Law School Professor Rebecca L. Brown explained how the case could be narrowly decided, focusing on Proposition 8’s susceptibility under equal protection scrutiny.
“When a law classifies, the possibility arises that the state could be acting in disregard of its obligation to recognize the equal status of all persons,” Brown wrote in The Prop 8 Court Can Have it All: Justice, Precedent, Respect for Democracy, and an Appropriately Limited Judicial Role. “That is why courts have interpreted the Equal Protection Clause to demand of states that they provide reasons for their classifications. By requiring states to offer reasons for any classifications that they employ – whether at a level designated as legitimate, important or compelling – the Court has sought to ensure that states do not arbitrarily or invidiously single out some portion of the polity to bear a burden that would not have been enacted if imposed on all.”