Another Marriage Ban Bites the Dust
July 1st, 2014
A federal judge today ruled that same-sex couples have a right to marry in Kentucky.
“In America, even sincere and long-hold religious beliefs do not trump the constitutional rights of those who happen to have been out-voted,” U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II wrote to invalidate Kentucky’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
…Heyburn upheld the right to marry today, but put his ruling on hold pending a decision by a higher court. Heyburn rejected the only justification offered by lawyers for Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear — that traditional marriages contribute to a stable birth rate and the state’s long-term economic stability.
“These arguments are not those of serious people,” he said.
Judge Heyburn, who was appointed to the bench in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush on Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) recommendation, ruled that Kentucky’s ban violates the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Earlier this year, the same judge ruled that the state of Kentucky must recognize the validity of same-sex marriages performed in other states.
The full ruling is here. Judge Heyburn begins by observing the near-unanimity of prior court decisions in the wake of Windsor but explains why, unlike most other Federal judges, he chose not to rule on Due Process grounds:
Since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in United States v. Windsor, 133 S.Ct. 2675 (2013), every federal court to consider state bans on same-sex marriage and recognition has declared them unconstitutional. Most of these courts have done so under both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This Court’s opinion differs in that it does not determine whether Kentucky’s laws interfere with a fundamental right. The Court’s chief reason for declining to do so is its careful reading of Windsor, which suggests that the Supreme Court is unwilling and unlikely to view the right Plaintiffs seek to exercise as fundamental under the Constitution.
He explains that a bit further
Although many courts have discussed the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses in tandem, ultimately, this Court sees this case as more clearly about the imposition of a classification than about the contours of a due process right. The constitutional question is whether a state can lawfully exclude a certain class of individuals, i.e. homosexual persons, from the status and dignity of marriage. The Court will resolve Plaintiffs’ claims solely on equal protection grounds.
Judge Heyburn acknowledged that “the most difficult part of the equal protection analysis here is determining the proper standard of review.” For heightened scrutiny, which places to burden of proof on the state to show that its action against a suspect class is narrowly tailored to further a legitimate government interest. If the action interferes with a fundemantal right, then gay people qualify as a suspect class, then strict scrutiny applies. But if gay people are simply being singled out for special treatment for other reasons, then they may qualify for quasi-suspect class requiring heghtened scrutiny. While Loving v. Virgina and other court cases identified marriage as a fundamental right, Judge Heyburn found that when the U.S. Supreme Court had the opportunity to extend that fundamental right to gay people in Windsor, it decliend to do so:
If the inquiry here is viewed as a contours-of-the-right question, holding that the fundamental right to marry encompasses same-sex marriage would be a dramatic step that the Supreme Court has not yet indicated a willingness to take. Further, it is a step that is unnecessary to the ultimate result in this action. Given the current posture of relevant constitutional jurisprudence, this Court finds caution here a more appropriate approach to avoid overreaching in its own constitutional analysis.
He did however rule that gay people constitute a quasi-suspect class, based on four factors identified by the Supreme Court: 1) historical discrimination, 2) ability to contribute to society, 3) immutable defining characteristics, and 4) politiacl powerlessness.
Historical discrimination against homosexual persons is readily apparent and cannot reasonably be disputed. Further, the Court cannot think of any reason why homosexuality would affect a person’s ability to contribute to society. No court has concluded otherwise. The remaining two factors, immutability and political powerlessness, are slightly less straightforward.
As to immutability, the relevant inquiry is not whether a person could, in fact, change a characteristic, but rather whether the characteristic is so integral to a person’s identity that it would be inappropriate to require her to change it to avoid discrimination. Accord Wolf, 2014 WL 2558444, at *28; see also Griego v. Oliver, 2014-NMSC-003, 316 P.3d 865, 884 (N.M. 2013). For example, strictly speaking, a person can change her citizenship, religion, and even gender. Legislative classifications based on these characteristics nevertheless receive heightened scrutiny because, even though they are in a sense subject to choice, no one should be forced to disavow or change them. That is, these characteristics are “an integral part of human freedom” entitled to constitutional protection, as is sexual expression. Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 577. …
Finally, the Court finds that homosexual persons are “politically powerless” within the constitutional meaning of this phrase. In discussing this factor, the Second Circuit noted: “The question is not whether homosexuals have achieved political influence and success over the years; they clearly have. The question is whether they have the strength to politically protect themselves from wrongful discrimination.” Windsor, 699 F.3d at 184. Indeed, if the standard were whether a given minority group had achieved any political successes over the years, virtually no group would qualify as a suspect or quasi-suspect class. A more effective inquiry looks to the vulnerability of a class in the political process due to its size or political or cultural history. See Wolf, 2014 WL 2558444, at *29. Under this inquiry, Kentucky’s laws against homosexual persons are “Exhibit A” of this powerlessness.
With gay people identified as a quasi-suspect class, Judge Heyburn ruled that the state of Kentucky was burdened with proving that its same-sex marriage ban is substantially related to an important governmental objective. And here’s where we get to the really juicy part, because Judge Heyburn then went on to say that Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriage would not even stand up to any level of scrutiny. “Rational basis review, while deferential, is not ‘toothless,’” Heyburn noted, before tearing into the state’s “illogical and even bewildering” attempts to justify Kentucky’s marriage ban:
The Court will begin with Defendant’s only asserted justification for Kentucky’s laws prohibiting same-sex marriage: “encouraging, promoting, and supporting the formation of relationships that have the natural ability to procreate.” Perhaps recognizing that procreation- based arguments have not succeeded in this Court, see Bourke, 2014 WL 556729, at *8, nor any other court post-Windsor, Defendant adds a disingenuous twist to the argument: traditional marriages contribute to a stable birth rate which, in turn, ensures the state’s long-term economic stability.
These arguments are not those of serious people. Though it seems almost unnecessary to explain, here are the reasons why. Even assuming the state has a legitimate interest in promoting procreation, the Court fails to see, and Defendant never explains, how the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage has any effect whatsoever on procreation among heterosexual spouses. Excluding same-sex couples from marriage does not change the number of heterosexual couples who choose to get married, the number who choose to have children, or the number of children they have. See Bishop v. United States ex rel. Holder, 962 F. Supp. 2d 1252, 1291 (N.D. Okla. 2014) (“Marriage is incentivized for naturally procreative couples to precisely the same extent regardless of whether same-sex couples (or other non- procreative couples) are included.”). The Court finds no rational relation between the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage and the Commonwealth’s asserted interest in promoting naturally procreative marriages.
The state’s attempts to connect the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage to its interest in economic stability and in “ensuring humanity’s continued existence” are at best illogical and even bewildering. These arguments fail for the precise reasons that Defendant’s procreation argument fails.
Numerous courts have repeatedly debunked all other reasons for enacting such laws. The Court can think of no other conceivable legitimate reason for Kentucky’s laws excluding same-sex couples from marriage.
The State tried to anticipate one anti-gay argument that courts elsewhere have slapped down by asserting that just because oppposite-sex couples may not be able to procreate or may chose not to, doesn’t mean that it can’t deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples because they can’t procreate. Judge Heyburn agreed that this inconsistency doesn’t automatically fail a rational-basis rule. “However, that Kentucky’s laws do not deny licenses to other non- procreative couples reveals the true hypocrisy of the procreation-based argument,” he countered.
More importantly, the imperfect line-drawing argument assumes incorrectly that the Court bases its ruling on a comparison between same-sex couples and other non-procreative couples. On the contrary, this Court bases its ruling primarily upon the utter lack of logical relation between the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriages and any conceivable legitimate state interest. Any relationship between Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriage and its interest in procreation and long-term economic stability “is so attenuated as to render the distinction arbitrary or irrational.” City of Cleburne, 473 U.S. at 446.
Judge Heybourn concluded his ruling by noting both reaction to his earlier ruling requiring Kentucky to recognize same-sex marriage performed outside the state and the evolving legal landscape since his earlier decision:
Since this Court’s Bourke opinion, the legal landscape of same-sex marriage rights across the country has evolved considerably, with eight additional federal district courts and one circuit court invalidating state constitutional provisions and statutes that denied same-sex couples the right to marry. …With this opinion, this Court joins their company.
Sometimes, by upholding equal rights for a few, courts necessarily must require others to forebear some prior conduct or restrain some personal instinct. Here, that would not seem to be the case. Assuring equal protection for same-sex couples does not diminish the freedom of others to any degree. Thus, same-sex couples’ right to marry seems to be a uniquely “free” constitutional right. Hopefully, even those opposed to or uncertain about same-sex marriage will see it that way in the future.
The Court’s holding today is consistent with Bourke, although it requires different relief. The ability to marry in one’s state is arguably much more meaningful, to those on both sides of the debate, than the recognition of a marriage performed in another jurisdiction. But it is for that very reason that the Court is all the more confident in its ruling today.