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What Married Same-Sex Couples Owe to Hippie Communes

Today's post is from Nancy D. Polikoff, author of Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. Polikoff is a Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, where she teaches Sexuality and the Law and has taught Family Law for more than 20 years. This post originally appeared on her Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage blog.

Book cover for Beyond (Straight and Gay) MarriageI'm guessing most married same-sex couples think they have little in common with the hippie communes of the 1960's and 70's. Free-loving hippies challenged the fabric of American society, including the nuclear family, while most married same-sex couples, or at least the organizations that speak for them, are busy presenting gay marriage as anything but a threat to heterosexual family life.

Well, think again. Last week's ruling in Gill v. OPM demonstrates just how much debt all gay rights advocacy owes those hippies.

After rejecting every asserted justification for excluding Massachusetts married couples from the legal consequences of being married under federal law, US District Court Judge Joseph Tauro said this:

What remains, therefore, is the possibility that Congress sought to deny recognition to same-sex marriages in order to make heterosexual marriage appear more valuable or desirable. But to the extent that this was the goal, Congress has achieved it "only by punishing same-sex couples who exercise their rights under state law." And this the Constitution does not permit. "For if the constitutional conception of 'equal protection of the laws' means anything, it must at the very least mean" that the Constitution will not abide such "a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group."

The citation for the last sentence in that paragraph is a case called USDA v. Moreno, decided in 1973. It's the case that formed the primary precedent for the Court's landmark gay rights ruling in 1996, Romer v. Evans.

Moreno was a challenge to an amendment to the statute governing the federal food stamp program. When enacted in 1964, eligibility for food stamps was determined on the basis of household size and income. A "household" included any group of related or unrelated individuals who basically shopped for food and cooked in common. In 1971, Congress amended the law to exclude households whose members were not all related.

Several households challenged the constitutionality of the statute, including two mothers on public assistance living together for economic reasons; a family that took in an unrelated young woman with emotional problems; and named plaintiff Jacinta Moreno, who lived with a mother of three, paying rent and receiving care in return. All were eligible for food stamps but for the fact that none of the households consisted entirely of related individuals.

The Court found that Congress created the food stamp program to alleviate hunger and malnutrition and that distinguishing between related and unrelated persons was irrelevant to that purpose. The Court further rejected the government's assertion that limiting aid to related individuals would reduce the likelihood of fraudulent use of food stamps. The Court did examine the legislative history of the 1971 amendment, and it found this: The amendment was enacted to prevent hippies and hippie communes from receiving food stamps.

And to this the Court said:

The challenged classification clearly cannot be sustained by reference to this congressional purpose. For if the constitutional conception of "equal protection of the laws" means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest.

It's that language that Justice Kennedy resurrected in Romer v. Evans and that Judge Tauro cites in Gill.

Moreno had a dissent by Justice Rehnquist who thought that Congress was perfectly within its rights to limit food stamps to "some variation on the family as we know it - a household consisting of related individuals." Rehnquist was not yet Chief Justice. As everyone knows, the Court became considerably more conservative in later years, with Rehnquist at its helm and as Republican presidents selected more Justices. It is very likely that the Rehnquist Court would have upheld the food stamp restriction.

But in 1971 hippies were not the only challenge to the traditional family. Feminism and the gay liberation movement were right in there. As I write about in my book, it was a time when defying both conventional sexual morality and the nuclear family norm were part of the vision for creating a better society. And that view was accepted enough that the Supreme Court of the United States thought that Congress could not punish people proclaiming -- and living -- that vision.

Today LGBT people are the beneficiaries of Moreno. It's the only case that Justice Kennedy could cite to strike down Colorado's Amendment 2 in RomerRomer read gay people into the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Without it there would be no Gill. Whenever you see Moreno cited, thank the hippies, and the legal services lawyers who stood up for them before the Supreme Court.

And if you are not married, don't aspire to marry, and indeed have a more fluid idea of what family ought to count under our laws, Moreno is the case that someday, with some change in the Court's personnel, might mean your liberation as well.