California Supreme Court: words matter

Posted in Gay rights, Married life at 2:04 pm by ducky

Today, something that I worked on for five years came to a successful completion today. No, not my thesis: the California Supreme Court ruled that marriage discrimination against same-sex couples was unconstitutional.

In 30 days (when the law takes effect), California will join the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, South Africa, Spain, and Massachusetts in allowing same-sex couples to get married civilly.

I skimmed the court decision, and it all came down to words. They were very clear that California’s domestic partnership granted essentially all the same rights and responsibilities as California civil marriage. They were deciding

whether our state Constitution prohibits the state from establishing a statutory scheme in which both opposite-sex and same-sex couples are granted the right to enter into an officially recognized family relationship that affords all of the significant legal rights and obligations traditionally associated under state law with the institution of marriage, but under which the union of an opposite-sex couple is officially designated a “marriage” whereas the union of a same-sex couple is officially designated a “domestic partnership.

In other words, does the word matter? And if it does, is it okay to grant the word “marriage” to one group and not to another?

They determined that this was a question of the equal-protection-under-the-law clause, and as such, subjected it to a legal examination called “strict scrutiny”:

in order to demonstrate the constitutional validity of a challenged statutory classification the state must establish (1) that the state interest intended to be served by the differential treatment not only is a constitutionally legitimate interest, but is a compelling state interest, and (2) that the differential treatment not only is reasonably related to but is necessary to serve that compelling state interest.

They decided that the state didn’t have a compelling interest in perpetuating the differing language.

They also pretty comprehensively showed that the different language matters. One example they mentioned is that it is common to be asked “Are you single or married?” To respond truthfully, “I’m in a domestic partnership”, requires disclosing one’s sexual orientation in a situation where they might not want to.

Accordingly, we conclude that to the extent the current California statutory provisions limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, these statutes are unconstitutional.


I was sure that this would happen in my lifetime, but thought it would take longer.

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