Marriage Equality in Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee

Having filed amicus briefs in Hollingsworth v. Perry (California’s Prop 8), United States v. Windsor (Defense of Marriage Act), and the cases involving the marriage laws of Oklahoma, Utah, and Virginia in the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Tenth and Fourth Circuits, respectively, Cato and the Constitutional Accountability Center have filed briefs in three marriage-related cases now before the Sixth Circuit. DeBoer v. Snyder questions Michigan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Tanco v. Haslem challenges Tennessee’s non-recognition of same-sex marriages, while Bourke v. Beshear does the same in Kentucky. 

DeBoer was originally filed to similarly challenge Michigan’s non-recognition of same-sex marriages, but was later amended to attack the underlying issue of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage all-told. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Windsor (striking down part of DOMA), the DeBoar district court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor. The district court in Bourke then ruled in favor of two couples and their respective children; Kentucky’s attorney general had refused to defend the non-recognition law, so the governor hired outside counsel. Finally, in Tanco, decided this past March, three Tennessee couples were also successful in court. The Sixth Circuit stayed all three rulings pending its own examination of the issues presented.

The Cato-CAC position continues to be what we’ve argued all along: The Fourteenth Amendment promises the equal protection of the laws to all persons. It’s a sweeping guarantee that eliminates class-based discrimination that lacks a strong policy justification (for example, denying driver’s licenses to blind people). Though enacted in response to failures to protect the rights of the newly freed slaves, this guarantee was intended to protect the rights of all persons — as demonstrated textually by its neutral phrasing, extending its protections to “any person.” The amendment’s proponents consciously rejected race-specific language. Indeed, in introducing the amendment, Senator Jacob Howard explained that it “abolish[ed] all class legislation.” The common, public understanding was that the Fourteenth Amendment “[took] from the States the power to make class legislation and to create inequality among their people.”

Both early Supreme Court cases and modern precedent demonstrate that it was understood that the Equal Protection Clause spoke in general terms that were considered comprehensive. The equal right to marry the person of one’s choice is guaranteed by that provision. Even opponents of the Fourteenth Amendment acknowledged the fundamental nature of the right to marry. The modern Supreme Court has recognized this as well, most famously in Loving v. Virginia, as well as in Zablocki v. Redhail and elsewhere. 

Laws that prohibit or refuse to recognize same-sex couples’ marriages therefore violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws. They impose badges of inferiority on persons based solely on their class and the harm extends to the children being raised by such couples. No compelling state interest is served by and no constitutionally legitimate rationale can be found in such disparate treatment. Merely invoking “tradition” can’t save a practice from constitutional prohibition — as has been shown in cases involving segregation, sodomy, and speech restrictions. The very purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to break the tradition of denying the equal protection of the laws to newly freed slaves and other disfavored groups.

The Sixth Circuit will hear argument in all these cases, along with one out of Ohio (to round out the four states that make up the Sixth Circuit) on August 6.