U.S. Supreme Court To Hear Marriage Definition Cases
by David Gibson
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments March 26 and 27 in two major cases that challenge the traditional definition of marriage as the union only of a man and a woman.
What the court ultimately decides in these cases could have far-reaching implications for marriage laws across the nation. To proceed, though, the court must first determine whether the parties involved actually have the required legal standing.
One case challenges the federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA. The other case involves California’s Proposition 8, a voter-approved measure to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Supporters of the traditional definition of marriage and supporters of legalized marriage for same-sex couples both plan rallies in Washington at the time of the hearings. The debate surrounding marriage will be in clear evidence as the Supreme Court sessions commence.
A March for Marriage taking place in Washington March 26, the first day of the oral arguments, is being organized by the National Organization for Marriage. The march received support in a Feb. 25 letter sent to all U.S. Catholic bishops by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., chairman of the USCCB Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the Subcommittee for the Defense and Promotion of Marriage.
They said “the march will be a significant opportunity to promote and defend marriage and the good of our nation, to pray for our Supreme Court justices and to stand in solidarity with people of good will.”
The federal Defense of Marriage Act, approved by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton, only recognizes opposite-sex marriages and thus denies federal marriage benefits to couples of the same sex, including those legally married in a U.S. state that allows such unions.
The marriage benefits in question could relate to income taxes, estate taxes, Social Security benefits and other matters.
The high court will hear arguments for and against DOMA March 27. In a friend-of-the-court brief submitted Jan. 29, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged that DOMA be upheld.
“The legal definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has been the ubiquitous norm in Western cultures for millennia,” the brief said. It argued that DOMA “does not infringe upon a fundamental right.” The high court’s “decisions describing marriage as a fundamental right plainly contemplate the union of one man and one woman,” it said.
The USCCB said that if the Supreme Court “were to conclude that the Constitution requires a redefinition of marriage to include persons in same-sex relationships … it is unclear where the logical stopping point would be.” It explained:
“[The] court will ultimately be asked why other interpersonal relationships are not entitled to similar inclusion and why other ‘barriers’ to marriage (such as those posed by youth, kinship or multiplicity of parties) should not also have to be struck down.”
The Obama administration announced in 2011 that it no longer would defend DOMA’s definition of marriage in the courts, having concluded it is discriminatory.
In a statement then, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, USCCB president, rejected the notion that opposing marriage for same-sex couples constitutes a form of unjust discrimination.
He said “unjust discrimination against any person is always wrong. But [this law] is not ‘unjust discrimination’; rather, it merely affirms and protects the time-tested and unalterable meaning of marriage. The suggestion that this definition amounts to ‘discrimination’ is grossly false and represents an affront to millions of citizens.”
One day before the Supreme Court justices hear arguments for and against DOMA, they will listen as lawyers argue the merits of California’s well-known Proposition 8. In November 2008 California voters approved the proposition to amend the state’s constitution to define marriage as the union only of one man and one woman.
But in early February 2012 the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the California ban on marriages between persons of the same sex.
The court of appeals held that California earlier had legalized marriage for same-sex couples and could not revoke the right. The court said Proposition 8 violated the constitutional right to due process and equal protection under the law.
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the high court’s Proposition 8 case, the USCCB insisted that “marriage, understood as the union of one man and one woman, is not a historical relic but a vital and foundational institution of civil society today.”
It held that “government interests in continuing to encourage and support” this definition of marriage “are not merely legitimate but compelling.”
The USCCB brief argued that “given both the unique capacity for reproduction and unique value of homes with a mother and father, it is reasonable for a state to treat the union of one man and one woman as having a public value that is absent from other intimate interpersonal relationships.”
The bishops conference took issue with “the 9th Circuit’s radical ‘redefinition’ of marriage to mean ‘committed lifelong relationships.” This, said the brief, “empties marriage of its meaning and leads to absurd results.”
For, it continued, “any number of relationships (brother-sister, mother-daughter, father-son or lifelong friends) may be ‘committed’ and ‘lifelong’ without constituting a marriage. For that matter, three or more persons may have a lifelong, committed relationship.”
The brief expressed concern that if the U.S. Constitution “were construed to require government affirmation of same-sex relationships as marriage, it would seem a short step to requiring such affirmation as a condition of receiving government contracts, participating in public programs or being eligible for tax exemption.” It said:
“In short order, those who disagree with the government’s moral assessment of such relationships would find themselves increasingly marginalized and denied equal participation in American public life and benefits.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.