On December 7, 2012, The United States Supreme Court decided it will hear two cases dealing with gay marriage. The Supreme court has agreed to determine the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8. Proposition 8 provided an amendment to California’s Constitution to limit marriage in the state to the union of one man and one woman. The decisions of the Supreme Court could determine the validity of gay marriages in California, New York State and potentially the entire country.
California’s Proposition 8: Legal Challenge
Prior to November 2008, the California Constitution guaranteed the rights of all couples, same-sex as well as opposite-sex, to marry. Prior to the 2008 election, however, opponents obtained the required signatures to put a question on the ballot.
Known as Proposition 8, the ballot initiative proposed that the state’s constitution be amended by adding the following, “Only marriage between a man and woman is valid or recognized in California.” On November 4, 2008, the initiative passed with 52% of voters approving the amendment and 48% of voters voting against it.
In May 2009, two same-sex couples filed a lawsuit after they were refused marriage licenses. The defendants were four state officials including the Governor and the Attorney General as well as two clerks with the City and County of San Francisco. On August 4, 2012, after a twelve day trial, Vaughn Walker, Senior Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California handed down his decision – he ruled Proposition 8 was unconstitutional.
The judge found the amendment violated the Due Process Clause of the Constitution because there was no compelling state interest in preventing gay and lesbian couples from marrying. He also ruled that Proposition 8 went against the Equal Protection Clause because there was no rational basis for excluding same-sex couples from marriage.
The case was appealed to the United States Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit. In a 2-1 decision rendered on February 7, 2012, the appellate court upheld Judge Walker’s finding that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional. The majority agreed there was no compelling interest in denying marriage to same sex couples who had that right prior to the passage of Proposition 8. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Reinhardt wrote,
“All that Proposition 8 accomplished was to take away from same-sex couples the right to be granted marriage licenses and thus legally to use the designation of ‘marriage’ which symbolizes state legitimization and societal recognition of their committed relationships. Proposition 8 serves no purpose and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples. The Constitution does not allow for laws of this sort.”