The right answer to the same-sex marriage question is to remove government from the marriage business altogether. That’s a legislative matter, however, and not something the courts should decree. Until then, because state and federal laws confer benefits based on marital status, the equal protection provisions of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments require that same-sex couples not be subject to discrimination in receipt of those benefits. But that issue was not addressed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in California—a state that permits gay unions and does not discriminate against such unions in conferring “marital” benefits. The specific issue the court decided was whether the label “marriage” could attach to heterosexual but not homosexual partnerships. Quite properly, the court ruled that it could not. That’s a narrow but important step in the right direction. But it does not settle the more significant question whether states may grant benefits to heterosexual couples while granting less or no benefits to homosexual couples.
In fact, there’s a negative aspect of the court’s ruling, which essentially declared Prop 8 unconstitutional because California went further than other states in allowing civil unions. The court held there’s no rational basis for allowing such unions but requiring that they carry a different label. That’s quite different from invoking the Equal Protection Clause to forbid a state from denying gays a right to the benefits of marriage. That issue didn’t arise because California grants such benefits to gays. Regrettably, other states may be dissuaded from following the California civil union model because their voters wish to limit the definition of “marriage” to exclude gays. In this instance, the better may become the enemy of the good.