Fed. Court Rules Prop. 8 Unconstitutional

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that Prop. 8, a California ballot initiative stripping same-sex couples of the right to marry, violated the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. The decision, affirming an August 2010 ruling by US District Court Judge Vaughn Walker, will almost certainly be appealed to the US Supreme Court. Today’s ruling states:

All that Proposition 8 accomplished was to take away from same-sex couples the right to be granted marriage licenses and thus legally to use the designation of ‘marriage,’ which symbolized state legitimization and societal recognition of their committed relationships. Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples. The Constitution simply does not allow for “laws of this sort.”

The ruling was narrowly tailored to address the specific case of California voters withdrawing an existing right to marriage, and so does not immediately apply to other states:

By using their initiative power to target a minority group and withdraw a right that it possessed, without a legitimate reason for doing so, the People of California violated the Equal Protection Clause. We hold Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional on this ground. We do not doubt the importance of the more general questions presented to us concerning the rights of same-sex couples to marry, nor do we doubt that these questions will likely be resolved in other states, and for the nation as a whole, by other courts. For now, it suffices to conclude that the People of California may not, consistent with the Federal Constitution, add to their state constitution a provision that has no more practical effect than to strip gays and lesbians of their right to use the official designation that the State and society give to committed relationships, thereby adversely affecting the status and dignity of the members of a disfavored class. The judgment of the district court is AFFIRMED.

The appeals court was weighing US District Court Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling as well as arguments that Walker, who is gay and in a long-term relationship, should have recused himself from the case (the appeals court said no), and whether proponents of Prop 8 had standing to defend the initiative in court when state officials declined to do so (appeals court said yes). Judge Walker ruled that Prop. 8 unconstitutionally violated both the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. In his 2010 decision, Walker wrote, “A private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples is not a proper basis for legislation,” and “The state does not have an interest in enforcing private moral or religious beliefs without an accompanying secular purpose.”

Walker’s ruling specifically considered and rejected Religious Right claims that Prop. 8 accommodates “the First Amendment rights of individuals and institutions that oppose same-sex marriage on religious or moral grounds.” He wrote, “Proposition 8 does not affect the First Amendment rights of those opposed to marriage for same-sex couples. Prior to Proposition 8, no religious group was required to recognize marriage for same-sex couples.”

Marriage in the United States has always been a civil matter. Civil authorities may permit religious leaders to solemnize marriages but not to determine who may enter or leave a civil marriage. Religious leaders may determine independently whether to recognize a civil marriage or divorce but that recognition or lack thereof has no effect on the relationship under state law.

Today’s ruling by the 9th Circuit also rejected the religious liberty claims, which were raised by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in an amicus brief:

…the religious-liberty interest that Proposition 8 supposedly promoted was to decrease the likelihood that religious organizations would be penalized, under California’s antidiscrimination laws and other government policies concerning sexual orientation, for refusing to provide services to families headed by same-sex spouses. But Proposition 8 did nothing to affect those laws. To the extent that California’s antidiscrimination laws apply to various activities of religious organizations, their protections apply in the same way as before.

The appeals court said the religious liberty claim raised by the Becket Fund is “thus more properly read as an appeal to the Legislature, seeking reform of the State’s antidiscrimination laws to include greater accommodations for religious organizations.”

Religious Right groups have, not surprisingly, denounced the decision — Right Wing Watch is tracking their responses here. While the Alliance Defense Fund said that “Every pro-marriage American should be pleased that this case can finally go to the U.S. Supreme Court,” some believe that the narrow application of the case to the situation in California means the Supreme Court would be less likely to hear it. At a press conference organized by the American Foundation for Equal Rights, attorney Ted Olsen said he believed the ruling made a strong case to the Supreme Court by relying on the Court’s rulings in Loving, Lawrence v Texas, and Romer, saying the decision added up to what he believed was an “insurmountable burden for our opponents.”

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