Nancy D. Polikoff is Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, where she teaches in the areas of family law, civil procedure, and sexuality and the law. She is the author of Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. Get 10% off on this and all other Beacon Press titles at our Holiday Sale, running through December 31st. This post originally appeared on Polikoff's blog.
If supporters of Prop 8 have standing to appeal Judge Walker's order in Perry v. Schwarzenegger (even though the state did not appeal it), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will decide whether Prop 8 violates the federal constitution. If you listened to the oral argument yesterday, you heard the term "rational basis" used a lot. That term means something in constitutional law. Every time the state puts people in categories -- classifies them -- it must have at least a "rational basis" for doing so. Charles Cooper, arguing for the Prop 8 supporters, therefore had to say what the rational basis is for allowing different-sex couples to marry but denying that right to same-sex couples.
Here's what he said. The key purpose of marriage is to manage the one relationship that naturally produces children, often unintentionally. Society's interests are threatened by unwanted pregnancy because a child raised by "its" (his word) mother alone violates society's vital interests. Society will have to step in and assist that single parent. ("That is what usually happens," he said). He argued as an "undeniable fact" that children raised in that circumstance have poor outcomes. In the middle of this last sentence, Judge Reinhardt said that sounded like a good argument for prohibiting divorce, but how does it relate to same-sex couples raising children?
His question caused chuckles in the courtroom, but here is its constitutional significance: The rational basis test requires that the state's classification be rationally related to achieving a legitimate state interest. So, first, what is the legitimate state interest? In general, providing for the welfare of children is of course legitimate, but, in this context, Cooper, on behalf of opponents of same-sex marriage, is essentially saying that the state has a legitimate interest in preventing births to single mothers. I strenuously object to this, on its own terms. And I wish supporters of same-sex marriage would object to it as well.
Instead, the emphasis among gay rights advocates is the approach reflected in Judge Reinhardt's question. It assumes that the state does have a legitimate interest in preventing births to unmarried mothers but suggests that keeping same-sex couples from marrying does nothing to achieve that objective. Judge Reinhardt's comment about divorce doesn't directly tackle bearing a child outside of marriage but does explicitly address a corrolary principle that opponents of same-sex marriage adhere to, which is that children do best raised by their married mother and father. Banning divorce would result in more couples staying married, so it does bear a rational relationship to having children raised by their married parents. Of course there is no political support for banning divorce, so no state is going to do that.
As a matter of constitutional argument, it is completely proper to focus on the relationship between the classification and the state interest. If the classification is not rationally related to the state interest then it should fail as a matter of Equal Protection law. So if banning same-sex marriage won't result in fewer heterosexual pregnancies outside of marriage, then it is irrational. (Or if allowing same-sex marriage won't result in more heterosexual pregnancies outside of marriage, then it is irrational.)
But I want to directly address the alleged state interest in reducing births outside of marriage. I wish that gay rights advocates would say directly that the state has no business prefering heterosexual motherhood within marriage over heterosexual motherhood outside of marriage. I do not believe that should be considered a "legitimate state interest." The arguments from social science about the well-being of children, which Charles Cooper referred to as "undeniable fact," are overstated, mischaracterized, covertly political, and flat out wrong. I've written about this in many posts about spending federal dollars on "marriage promotion." Consistently, the right wing argues that poverty is the result of unmarried births and that marriage is the way to end poverty. When that reasoning prevails, poverty looks like the moral failing of individuals who do not marry, rather than the result of systemic policies that reinforce income inequality that could be addressed through laws and programs designed to reduce that inequality. We know how to end poverty but we lack the political will to do it.
Charles Cooper's argument about the rational basis for opposing same-sex marriage is that if you redefine the word "marriage" to include same-sex couples you change the institution of marriage and make it something other than the place society provides for the well-being of children born, often accidentally, from the sexual relationship of the two participants. Unfortunately, it's an argument that has been successful in some state courts. I believe it fails the rational basis test in the way that Prop 8 opponents argued, but I also wants the gay rights movement to recognize its common cause with single mothers. Family structure does not determine child outcome. All children need government policies that optimally serve their physical, emotional, and educational needs. That's the gay rights position I champion.