The Magazine


The next stage in litigating same-sex marriage.

Oct 13, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 05 • By ROBERT F. NAGEL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

As odd as it may sound, when the California Supreme Court recently declared that prohibitions against homosexual marriage violate the state's constitution, the justices acknowledged, in effect, that relatively little was at stake in the case. As the court said, California's domestic partnership law already extended to same-sex couples "all of the significant legal rights and obligations traditionally associated .  .  . with the institution of marriage." Thus the forms of discrimination that gay rights advocates usually complain about-involving, for instance, the right to hospital visitation, the provision of health care benefits, parental rights, and so on-were not at issue. What was at issue was whether the state could use the term "domestic partnerships" when referring to same-sex couples while using "marriage" when referring to heterosexual couples.

A naive mind might have expected that gay rights proponents and sympathetic judges would have found the California domestic partnership law a cause for celebration-a sign of significant moral progress-rather than an egregious injustice to be roughly undone by decree. Too sophisticated for such notions, the members of the California court insisted, even as they itemized all the forms of equal treatment required by that law, that the phrase "domestic partnership" created an invidious discrimination. It violated "the right of same-sex couples to have their official family relationship accorded the same dignity, respect, and stature as that accorded to all other officially recognized family relationships."

In this era of exquisite sensitivity, it might be thought cruel to call into question the importance of this kind of unequal recognition. And, even discounting for politically correct sentimentality, it is true that status does in fact matter. Nevertheless, it is obvious that use of the term "domestic partnerships" does less harm than did such prior practices as, say, using the criminal law to punish private homosexual conduct. Why, then, did unequal recognition provoke such severe condemnation by the California court?

As in so many things, Alexis de Tocqueville is edifying on this question. He wrote of "a singular principle of relative justice which is very firmly implanted in the human heart." This principle, he continued, is that "men are much more forcibly struck by those inequalities which exist within the circle of the same class than with those which may be remarked between different classes." Later Tocqueville expanded on the same thought:

When inequality of conditions is the common law of society, the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it. Hence the desire of equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete.

Whether or not we accept the idea that the desire for equality becomes more intense as inequality shrinks, it does seem right that it is because homosexuals have achieved so much acceptance in American society, especially in California, that withholding the word "marriage" can seem to some a serious injustice. Perversely, as substantive discrimination diminishes, there is always more to be outraged about.

This principle is built into the widespread judicial practice, of which the California decision on gay marriage is only one example, of defining fundamental rights by generalizing or abstracting the rights already traditionally protected by society. The more a right has been respected by political institutions, the more likely it is that a court will declare it to be morally imperative that the right be extended beyond its existing limits. That, for example, is the basis for the U.S. Supreme Court's campaign limiting the death penalty. And, in fact, it is how homosexual sodomy became a constitutional right.