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New Hampshire, Marriage Equality, and Religious Exemptions

June 4th, 2009 3 comments

Late yesterday, New Hampshire became the sixth state to extend marriage equality to same-sex couples (seventh, if you include the now-you-have-it, now-you-don’t case of California). Here‘s a good, objective story about the law. It’s noteworthy that this isn’t even front-page news; at least in the tiny enclave of New England, equality is now the norm. Wait — Did I just write “Equality is now the norm.”? Who’d a thunk, just a couple of years ago?

The new battleground, apparently, is to be the scope of religious exemptions for those opposing marriage equality. Existing constitutional, legislative, and decisional law already make clear that no church is to be forced to marry a couple whose marriage offends its tenets, so the exemptions seek to go beyond that. New Hampshire’s, in fact, was required by the governor before he’d sign it. What does it do?

The text of the amendment is here. In sum, it bestows broad privileges on religious organizations and their affiliates to refuse to have anything to do with the celebration or solemnization of marriages that violate their precepts, and grants further protections with regard to promotion of these marriages in other contexts. For example, a religious university could exclude a validly married same-sex couple from student housing otherwise offered to married couples if the beliefs of that religion so demanded.

Some say the bill doesn’t go far enough, and should have also exempted those who provide services in connection with weddings; for example, florists, caterers, and the like.  Some of these advocates would go yet further; Tom Berg, for example, would allow even state employees, such as licensing clerks, to refuse to issue a marriage license to same-sex couple as long as another clerk was available to process the application.

There are many problems and issues with the breadth of these amendments, real and proposed, and I’ve committed to a more substantial post for another blog on this issue. For now, I want to address the very limited issue of allowing government workers to refuse to participate in this process. Here’s my bottom line: This is a very bad idea.

What makes denial of marriage equality so offensive in the first place? It’s that the state, without justification, is withholding a benefit to some that it grants to others. So those employed by the state — and who therefore represent it, certainly while on the job — should have to follow the rules that apply to everyone. Otherwise, the state is continuing to send the message of inequality.

Perhaps this dramatic (and admittedly unlikely) example will make the point: Imagine that New York passes a marriage equality bill that exempts marriage license clerks who have religious objections to same-sex marriages from having to perform their otherwise required duty. Further imagine that there’s one such clerk in the Manhattan office, and that there are ten available windows at which licenses are issued. To speed things up, and to avoid unpleasantness when same-sex couples walk up to the window, the city decides to post a sign at the one window where the religious objector is working: “Opposite-sex Marriages Only.” Would doing so be OK, in the interest of convenience?

Presumably, this example would make even advocates of the exemption uncomfortable, because it calls to mind “Colored Only” water fountains, rest rooms, lunch counters — you get the idea. But by allowing the clerk to refuse his or her civic duty, the state is allowing, in a more subtle way, exactly this sort of discrimination. The clerk’s actions are the city’s actions.

Given these comments, I’ll now try to surprise you by saying that I wouldn’t oppose other actions by this office to respect this worker’s religious beliefs. One option would be reassignment to an office that issues different kinds of licenses. I can’t see a cost there to either side, but I wouldn’t require the office to try doing so. Less formally, an objector who observed a same-sex couple waiting in line, or filling out an application, might step aside before his or her presence became known, and allow another clerk to take over temporarily. This might happen in any case, with or without legislation.

It’s very hard for me to be sympathetic to these kinds of beliefs, I should confess. Yet they’re deep and sincere in many cases, and I’m not opposed to efforts to respect them. But not when it comes to those employed by the government itself; then, the discrimination must either be eliminated, or somehow circumvented. Some things, I don’t want to know.

Vermont Follows Iowa! (But in a Very Different Way)

April 7th, 2009 2 comments

I returned from class to learn that the Vermont legislature has just overridden Governor Douglas’s veto of marriage equality legislation. 100 votes in the House were needed for the override; exactly 100 were obtained. (The Senate’s override was by an overwhelming majority.) Now, we have the first state in which marriage for gay couples has been achieved by a legislature acting without being required or pressured to do so by a court. In this post, I offer some background and a few thoughts about what this might mean.

First I have to say that I was stunned. With all attention, including my own, focused on Iowa, I didn’t realize that the governor’s veto had already taken place (the Vermont house voted on the bill just last Friday, the same day as the decision in Iowa), much less that the override votes were taking place. Nor did I realize that there was a good chance of overriding the veto: When the bill passed, it did so with only 95 votes. Somehow supporters found the five additional votes they needed.

So Vermont now becomes the fifth state to recognize marriage equality.1  But it was the first to move very substantially in that direction. In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court decided Baker v. State, the first sort-of-successful marriage equality case. The five justices were unanimous that same-sex couples were entitled to the benefits of marriage, but stopped just short of requiring the legislature to grant them the right to marry.2 Instead, they held, the law-makers might choose to provide access to some parallel institution conferring all or substantially all of the benefits of marriage — but not the label. Thus was the civil union born.

In an earlier post, I wrote tongue-in-cheekily about the significance attached to this label, wondering whether same-sex couples might be entitled to “mariage” — with one “r” — since the word “marriage” seemed to be the problem. But from a purely political perspective, the court’s decision turned out to be brilliant: The civil union didn’t generate the kind of oppositional heat that “marriage” would have, gave straight Vermont citizens some time to settle into the truth that same-sex couples’ unions didn’t threaten theirs, and eventually led to a commission report finding that civil unions weren’t leading to the full equality that the Vermont court had hoped for.  Ten years later, marriage equality is achieved.

The significance of equality through legislative means can’t be emphasized enough. One of the most effective (though wrong) criticisms of the push for marriage equality is that it’s been achieved through the courts: “activist judges,” “fascists in robes,” and “philosopher kings” have pushed this on the public, according to the opposition. What will they say now?

Some of the most extreme complain that the legislature isn’t democratic either, conveniently overlooking the whole notion of representative democracy. Traction, this will  have none. It’s particularly unconvincing in a small state like Vermont, where the state legislators have a great deal of contact with their constituents. Here is the link to this morning’s House vote in Vermont and the few comment that preceded it. Note the respect that both sides urge; one opponent says that, even if he loses, he will, as a Justice of the Peace, respect the law and perform same-sex marriages. Here are legislators who are very respectful and close to the voters.

The California legislature twice tried to enact marriage equality, only to have the governor veto both bills. So Vermont becomes the first state to grant basic equality to gay and lesbian couples; again, without judicial compulsion of any kind. What might it mean? I’m hesitant to say too much so soon, but let me try this: The Vermont move could well energize other somewhat progressive state legislatures to follow suit: the other New England states (especially New Hampshire and Maine); New Jersey; and New York are the likeliest. Once that happens, I think the push for marriage equality in California becomes even stronger; Prop 8 could be repealed as soon as next year, even if, as expected, the California Supreme Court allows it to stand.

And apres California, le deluge.

  1. I’m including California among the five, because equality was recognized for a time. It’s currently on hold pending the Supreme Court’s decision on Prop 8.
  2. One justice wrote that the couples were entitled to full marriage equality.

Iowa Marriage Decision: Further Thoughts and Some Perspective

April 4th, 2009 No comments

With the ramparts crumbling all around them, marriage equality opponents seem to be left with two talking points, which are really cris de coeur, the last howlings of a doomed defense. First, they fall back on their definition of marriage. Thus, the Iowa Supreme Court, in recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples, has spoken an “untruth.” Second,  they tirelessly remind us that, where people get to vote on others’ right to marry, they consistently vote against it (otherwise put, “courts are undemocratic”). The first is an assertion in search of an argument, while the second overlooks what is probably the central function of courts: the protection of minority rights against the vicissitudes of majority will, whim, or prejudice.

When this is the best you can do, you’ve lost the argument.

Of course, the Iowa court’s unanimous decision, portentous as it is, can’t be expected to bring a quick end to the debate. In fact, in the short run it may yet impel a few more states to strengthen their marriage bans by driving them into constitutional concrete. (For reasons cogently developed here, it’s somewhat unlikely that Iowa’s own constitution will be amended in this way. It certainly won’t happen soon.) Nonetheless, the opposition to marriage equality is starting to seem like a last stand. (Remember the Alamo?) Perhaps this commentator is right in thinking that a “tipping point” may just have been reached:

Moving from politics back to law: The Iowa court shoved the debate towards conclusion with its brisk and effective dismissal of the state’s arguments. I was especially struck by how the court, echoing the California Supreme Court’s decision from last year, gave no credence at all to the vague speculation that marriage equality will somehow harm the institution “in the long run.” And by now courts have seen just about enough of the  “virtual equality” promised by the civil union — Iowa would have no truck with it, and all three of the states that currently have it  (Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire) are likely to take the marriage equality plunge very soon.

The court’s willingness to address the religious argument directly will prove important, too. I read the point to be this: “We  respect religious opposition to same-sex marriages, but you need a properly public, secular reason to exclude people from a privileged institution.” That is a thoughtful and respectful response to citizens who sincerely oppose marriage equality for religious reasons, or because of a more general unease. Both of these sentiments were poignantly reflected in the comments of one Iowan:

“Diane Thacker’s eyes filled with tears when the ruling was read to a crowd that had gathered outside the Iowa Judicial Building.

‘Sadness,’ she whispered. ‘But I’m prayerful and hope that God’s word will stand.’ Thacker said she joined a group of gay-marriage opponents ‘because I believe in the marriage vow. I can’t see it any other way.'”

With respect to Ms. Thacker and so many like her, do we really want to deny basic equality on this kind of basis?1 Here’s a quote I’ve always liked, from a California tort case:

“No good reason compels our captivity to an indefensible orthodoxy.”

Finally, I find myself asking yet again: How much energy can opponents justify expending on this issue? In Afghanistan, a law is passed that sets back women’s rights (and arguably permits marital rape); in Iraq,2 gay men and condemned are killed for their “perversion.” I could go on and on.

Yet stopping the marriages of gays and lesbians is worth all of this time and effort? Go build a house, or something. You’re not going to stop marriage equality in any case.

  1. This, by the way, is a “rhetorical  question.”
  2. Nb., the nation we liberated from a dictator.

A Few Uninformed Guys on the Corner of Main and Elm

March 29th, 2009 1 comment

It’s only a matter of a year or two until some state uses the legislative process to create marriage equality. Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine: any of these would be a good guess, but the states’ governors have all stated (expressly or  implicitly) that they would veto such legislation. (There may or may not be the votes in Vermont to override such a veto). The  other two real possibilities are New York and New Jersey; New York already recognizes same-sex marriages from other states, while New Jersey has: (1) a civil union law; (2) a governor who recently stated he would sign a marriage equality bill if  it came before him; and (3) a reasonably progressive legislature.

When that day comes, though, don’t expect the anti-equality forces to admit that “democracy has prevailed” over a judiciary consisting of those Professor Lino Graglia of University of Texas Law School has angrily called “philosopher kings.” By now it is comically apparent that the anti-marriage gang favors — anyone who’s with them, intellectual honesty be damned. My perceptive colleague Robert Justin Lipkin made this  point eloquently a few years ago, and subsequent events have proven him more correct that he probably could have imagined.  

Leading the Inconsistency Brigade is the all-over-the-place Maggie Gallagher, whose tactics I discussed in an earlier post. Now, having excoriated the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the California Supreme Court for requiring marriage equality (the Mass court was wrong for applying a “rational basis” standard and finding that there wasn’t one for excluding same-sex couples from marriage; the Cal court was wrong for applying a higher level of scrutiny — what’s a poor court to do?), she finds fault with the legislative process in the New England States:

“[Marriage equality] is more a creature of special interest politics and legislative dealmaking. These are small states which can be influenced by fairly large amounts of outside money coming in. And it’s very hard for regular people to feel that they can have a voice on this issue in these states.”

Oh, the problem isn’t just the courts — it’s these darn small states! Hmm….wasn’t the tremendous influx of $$$ in California monumentally important (to both sides) in the Prop 8 fight? You  know, the not-so-small California (home to about one in every eight Americans). And I would have thought that people had more access to their government in the small states, what with the sort of “town hall” meeting style so closely associated with Vermont that it was popularized in Newhart.

It’s just too bad that the constitutions in these fly-speck states are so darn hard to amend, fumes Gallagher. She conveniently overlooks the fact that, when voters in Connecticut recently had a chance to call a constitutional convention that could have negate that state supreme court’s very recent marriage equality decision, they passed. Moreover, if recent poll numbers from Vermont (good summary and analysis at this site)  are to be believed, the “direct democracy” that Gallagher apparently favors won’t do the anti-equality forces any good in that state, anyway. Vermonters favor marriage equality.

This is all about tactics, then. Am I any more principled? Here’s my position: I think that matters of civil rights — especially where minorities are concerned — are for courts, and indeed go a long way towards justifying courts. Equality and fundamental rights go hand-in-hand in the case of marriage, because it’s  fair to require the majority to hold themselves to the same rules and definitions of what counts as “fundamental” as everyone else; simply put, if  marriage is a fundamental right, equality demands that it be offered to all consenting adult couples, neutrally. (And if that’s too much to bear, the state shouldn’t be in the marriage business.)

Politically, of course, it’s better if marriage equality comes from legislatures; courts, precisely because of their anti-majoritarian role within our constitutional scheme, are easily attacked as robed dictators. But courts are the check that’s needed,1  as anti-equality forces themselves usually recognize in other contexts, such as interracial marriage. [Gallagher: “The ban on interracial marriage was about keeping people apart; ‘this’ (opposing marriage equality) is about getting people together.” Nice sound bite, but inane. Which people, exactly, are going to be brought together by banning same-sex couples from marrying?)]

As Lipkin has put it:

“[T]hose opposing same-sex marriage should choose, once and for all, which branch of government is the proper forum for deciding this issue, or embrace both and cease carping at the courts when they enter the controversy. What they should avoid, at all costs, is adjusting their constitutional stories for result-driven purposes. Elementary decency in public debate demands as much.”

Or we could let the issue be decided by a few uninformed guys on the corner of Main and Elm.

  1. That isn’t to say, of course, that actual judges are reliable guarantors of equality. As a striking and distressing example, consider the flap over Justice Scalia that Barney Frank kicked off by calling the conservative justice a homophobe. The L.A. Times has a solid take on the whole thing.