What rational basis is there for telling same-sex couples they can't marry? Why … none, really, as the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wisely confirmed Tuesday by upholding a federal judge's decision that Proposition 8 violates the U.S. Constitution. There has to be a good reason for any law if it restricts the rights of a group of people who have long been the targets of bigotry. Proposition 8 never had such a reason. It was, rather, an ill-advised expression of bigotry that the court exposed.
"Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California," the ruling states. It brings California, and society, closer to ending decades of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Proposition 8's backers tried to claim that the decision by then-U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker was invalid because Walker is gay. That was always a faulty argument — divorced judges rule on divorce law, judges with children decide cases in juvenile court, judges of all races resolve civil rights claims. Now, a three-judge panel of the appellate court has made it clear that the reasons for rejecting California's 2008 ban on same-sex marriage were not the result of one judge's personal situation but rather were based solidly on the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which contains the guarantee of equal protection of the law. There must be a rational basis for laws, rather than a desire to single out a particular group. During the trial, lawyers and witnesses for Proposition 8 failed to establish a valid argument in favor of the amendment to the state Constitution that limited marriage to heterosexual couples.
In fact, the panel wrote in a summary remarkable for its lack of legal jargon, it wouldn't matter if Proposition 8's supporters had shown that same-sex couples don't make good parents (though there is abundant evidence otherwise) because the initiative wasn't about parenting or any of the other flimsy rationalizations used in the misleading television campaign on its behalf. "Proposition 8 … could not have been enacted to advance California's interests in child-rearing or responsible procreation," the ruling reasons, cutting neatly through the side issues, "for it had no effect on the rights of same-sex couples to raise children or on the procreative practices of other couples. Nor did Proposition 8 have any effect on religious freedom or on parents' rights to control their children's education."
Communities have the right to pass laws for their own benefit, as the court noted, but if those laws are going to "treat different classes of people differently," there must be a legitimate reason. In the case of Proposition 8, there was none. It "stripped same-sex couples of … an important right. Nothing more, nothing less."
That's the fundamental right of loving couples to join in the tradition of marriage, to seal their love for each other in a symbolically significant and legally binding compact, to share in the same blessings and struggles of other couples. A generation ago, this may have been too far beyond society's strictures to imagine, but society, thankfully, is changing. Just as society once accepted laws that forbade interracial marriage, it will one day look at bans on same-sex marriage as relics of an antiquated worldview.
It's too late for California to be at the forefront of changing the rules on same-sex marriage, but it would be a shame for a state that is known for its open-mindedness about diversity, civil rights and individual liberties to fall far behind.
The legal battle now may move on to theU.S. Supreme Court, where its fate is uncertain. A reversal there could undermine the progress that advocates of gay marriage have made in recent years. Still, the quest would continue, state by state if necessary. Polls continue to show increasing acceptance of marriage rights for same-sex couples. The 9th Circuit's ruling gives judicial credence to the legislative and popular movements to accord full civil rights to all Californians — and Americans — regardless of sexual orientation.