Last month, when Justice Anthony Kennedy found that same-sex marriage was a “fundamental right,” did he and the four other justices for whom he wrote find a “new” constitutional right? Or is it rather, as some of us have long argued, that the Constitution protected that right for nearly a century and a half, like the right to same-sex sodomy (Lawrence v. Texas), to sell and use contraceptives (Griswold v. Connecticut), to educate one’s child in a parochial school (Pierce v. Society of Sisters), and, dare I say, to freedom of contract in employment (Lochner v. New York)?
I address those questions in a piece in today’s National Law Journal, defending Kennedy’s conclusion in Obergefell v. Hodges but taking exception to his reasoning. The fundamental right to same-sex marriage rests mainly, he argued, on the liberty interest that is protected under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Not so, said Justice Clarence Thomas in his dissent. Drawing extensively on John Locke’s state-of-nature approach to political legitimacy, which the Founders and Framers drew on as well, Thomas argued that the Obergefell plaintiffs were not denied the right to marry. They were perfectly free to go to any willing clergyman who would marry them—and the state would not have interfered with their liberty to do so. What they wanted, he saw, was a state license, the state’s positive recognition of the marriage, and the legal benefits that go with the state’s recognition.
Kennedy’s conclusion as against the state, therefore, belongs properly not under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process but under its Equal Protection Clause. The state denied same-sex couples the same benefits it granted opposite-sex couples and thus discriminated against them. Thus, the right to marry someone of the same sex may be a natural right that anyone would enjoy in the state of nature; but once we leave that state, if an actual state we’re in grants the privileges of marriage, that right is entailed by and derived from the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause; and its denial is properly litigated against the state under the Equal Protection Clause. Unfortunately, Thomas never developed those points—nor could he have without coming out for same-sex marriage—nor did Kennedy’s brief and gauzy discussion of equal protection get to the heart of the matter either.
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