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New York Dissenting Opinion
Hernandez v. Robles
© July 6, 2006, Demian

“Simply put, fundamental rights are fundamental rights. They are not defined in terms of who is entitled to exercise them.”
Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, dissenting opinion in Hernandez v. Robles, July 6, 2006

While the case of Hernandez v. Robles lost 4-2 in the New York Court of Appeals on July 6, 2006, dissenting Chief Justice Kaye delivered a brilliant legal analysis of the issues and a call to justice for legal marriage.

Hernandez v. Robles was an omnibus case, which brought by 44 same-sex couples, from four different lawsuits:

Hernandez v. Robles
Samuels v. New York State Department of Health
Matter of Kane v. Marsolais
Seymour v. Holcomb
For more information about the scores of suits, please see our article: Legal Marriage Court Cases: A Timeline - U.S. court cases from 1971 to the present.

The following is the earliest, “uncorrected” court and subject to revision before publication in the New York Reports.

KAYE, CHIEF JUDGE (dissenting):

Plaintiffs (including petitioners) are 44 same-sex couples who wish to marry. They include a doctor, a police officer, a public school teacher, a nurse, an artist and a State legislator. Ranging in age from under 30 to 68, plaintiffs reflect a diversity of races, religions and ethnicities. They come from upstate and down, from rural, urban and suburban settings. Many have been together in committed relationships for decades, and many are raising children — from toddlers to teenagers. Many are active in their communities, serving on their local school board, for example, or their cooperative apartment building board. In short, plaintiffs represent a cross-section of New Yorkers who want only to live full lives, raise their children, better their communities and be good neighbors.

For most of us, leading a full life includes establishing a family. Indeed, most New Yorkers can look back on, or forward to, their wedding as among the most significant events of their lives. They, like plaintiffs, grew up hoping to find that one person with whom they would share their future, eager to express their mutual lifetime pledge through civil marriage. Solely because of their sexual orientation, however — that is, because of who they love — plaintiffs are denied the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage. This State has a proud tradition of affording equal rights to all New Yorkers. Sadly, the Court today retreats from that proud tradition.

I. Due Process

Under both the State and Federal Constitutions, the right to due process of law protects certain fundamental liberty interests, including the right to marry. Central to the right to marry is the right to marry the person of one’s choice (see e.g. Crosby v State of N.Y., Workers’ Compensation Bd., 57 NY2d 305, 312 [1982] [“clearly falling within (the right of privacy) are matters relating to the decision of whom one will marry”]; People v Shepard, 50 NY2d 640, 644 [1980] [“the government has been prevented from interfering with an individual’s decision about whom to marry”]). The deprivation of a fundamental right is subject to strict scrutiny and requires that the infringement be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest (see e.g. Carey v Population Servs. Intl., 431 US 678, 686 [1977]).

Fundamental rights are those “which are, objectively, deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition … and implicit in the concept of ordered liberty, such that neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sacrificed” (Washington v Glucksberg, 521 US 702, 720-721 [1997] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]). Again and again, the Supreme Court and this Court have made clear that the right to marry is fundamental (see e.g. Loving v Virginia, 388 US 1 [1967]; Zablocki v Redhail, 434 US 374 [1978]; Turner v Safley, 482 US 78 [1987]; Matter of Doe v Coughlin, 71 NY2d 48, 52 [1987]; Cooper v Morin, 49 NY2d 69, 80 [1979]; Levin v Yeshiva Univ., 96 NY2d 484, 500 [2001] [Smith, J., concurring] [“marriage is a fundamental constitutional right”]).

The Court concludes, however, that same-sex marriage is not deeply rooted in tradition, and thus cannot implicate any fundamental liberty. But fundamental rights, once recognized, cannot be denied to particular groups on the ground that these groups have historically been denied those rights. Indeed, in recasting plaintiffs’ invocation of their fundamental right to marry as a request for recognition of a “new” right to same-sex marriage, the Court misapprehends the nature of the liberty interest at stake. In Lawrence v Texas (539 US 558 [2003]), the Supreme Court warned against such error.

Lawrence overruled Bowers v Hardwick (478 US 186 [1986]), which had upheld a Georgia statute criminalizing sodomy. In so doing, the Lawrence Court criticized Bowers for framing the issue presented too narrowly. Declaring that “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today” (539 US at 578), Lawrence explained that Bowers purported to analyze — erroneously — whether the Constitution conferred a “fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy” (539 US at 566 [citation omitted]). This was, however, the wrong question. The fundamental right at issue, properly framed, was the right to engage in private consensual sexual conduct — a right that applied to both homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. In narrowing the claimed liberty interest to embody the very exclusion being challenged, Bowers “disclose[d] the Court’s own failure to appreciate the extent of the liberty at stake” (Lawrence, 539 US at 567).

The same failure is evident here. An asserted liberty interest is not to be characterized so narrowly as to make inevitable the conclusion that the claimed right could not be fundamental because historically it has been denied to those who now seek to exercise it (see Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v Casey, 505 US 833, 847 [1992] [it is “tempting … to suppose that the Due Process Clause protects only those practices, defined at the most specific level, that were protected against government interference by other rules of law when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. … But such a view would be inconsistent with our law.”]).

Notably, the result in Lawrence was not affected by the fact, acknowledged by the Court, that there had been no long history of tolerance for homosexuality. Rather, in holding that “[p]ersons in a homosexual relationship may seek autonomy for the[] purpose[ of making intimate and personal choices], just as heterosexual persons do” (539 US at 574), Lawrence rejected the notion that fundamental rights it had already identified could be restricted based on traditional assumptions about who should be permitted their protection. As the Court noted, “times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress. As the Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom” (Lawrence, 539 US at 579; see also id. at 572 [“(h)istory and tradition are the starting point but not in all cases the ending point of the substantive due process inquiry” (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)]; City of Cleburne, Tex. v Cleburne Living Ctr., 473 US 432, 466 [1985] [Marshall, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part] [“what once was a ‘natural’ and ‘self-evident’ ordering later comes to be seen as an artificial and invidious constraint on human potential and freedom”]).

Simply put, fundamental rights are fundamental rights. They are not defined in terms of who is entitled to exercise them.

Instead, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the fundamental right to marry must be afforded even to those who have previously been excluded from its scope--that is, to those whose exclusion from the right was “deeply rooted.”1 Well into the twentieth century, the sheer weight of precedent accepting the constitutionality of bans on interracial marriage was deemed sufficient justification in and of itself to perpetuate these discriminatory laws (see e.g. Jones v Lorenzen, 441 P2d 986, 989 [Okla 1965] [upholding anti-miscegenation law since the “great weight of authority holds such statutes constitutional”]) — much as defendants now contend that same-sex couples should be prohibited from marrying because historically they always have been.

Just 10 years before Loving declared unconstitutional state laws banning marriage between persons of different races, 96% of Americans were opposed to interracial marriage (see Br. of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. as Amicus Curiae in Support of Plaintiffs, at 5). Sadly, many of the arguments then raised in support of the anti-miscegenation laws were identical to those made today in opposition to same-sex marriage (see e.g. Kinney v Commonwealth, 71 Va [30 Gratt] 858, 869 [1878] [marriage between the races is “unnatural” and a violation of God’s will]; Pace v State, 69 Ala 231, 232 [1881] [“amalgamation” of the races would produce a “degraded civilization”]; see also Lonas v State, 50 Tenn [3 Heisk] 287, 310 [1871] [“(t)he laws of civilization demand that the races be kept apart”]).

To those who appealed to history as a basis for prohibiting interracial marriage, it was simply inconceivable that the right of interracial couples to marry could be deemed “fundamental.” Incredible as it may seem today, during the lifetime of every Judge on this Court, interracial marriage was forbidden in at least a third of American jurisdictions. In 1948, New York was one of only 18 states in the nation that did not have such a ban. By 1967, when Loving was decided, 17 states still outlawed marriages between persons of different races. Nevertheless, even though it was the ban on interracial marriage — not interracial marriage itself — that had a long and shameful national tradition, the Supreme Court determined that interracial couples could not be deprived of their fundamental right to marry.

Unconstitutional infringements on the right to marry are not limited to impermissible racial restrictions. Inasmuch as the fundamental right to marry is shared by “all the State’s citizens” (Loving, 388 US at 12), the State may not, for example, require individuals with child support obligations to obtain court approval before getting married (see Zablocki, 434 US 374). Calling Loving the “leading decision of this Court on the right to marry,” Justice Marshall made clear in Zablocki that Loving

“could have rested solely on the ground that the statutes discriminated on the basis of race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. But the Court went on to hold that laws arbitrarily deprived the couple of a fundamental liberty protected by the Due Process Clause, the freedom to marry. … Although Loving arose in the context of racial discrimination, prior and subsequent decisions of this Court confirm that the right to marry is of fundamental importance for all individuals” (434 US at 383-384 [internal citation omitted]).
Similarly, in Turner (482 US 78), the Supreme Court determined that the right to marry was so fundamental that it could not be denied to prison inmates (see also Boddie v Connecticut, 401 US 371 [1971] [state requirement that indigent individuals pay court fees to obtain divorce unconstitutionally burdened fundamental right to marry]).

Under our Constitution, discriminatory views about proper marriage partners can no more prevent same-sex couples from marrying than they could different-race couples. Nor can “deeply rooted” prejudices uphold the infringement of a fundamental right (see People v Onofre, 51 NY2d 476, 490 [1980] [“disapproval by a majority of the populace … may not substitute for the required demonstration of a valid basis for intrusion by the State in an area of important personal decision”]). For these reasons, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, as amicus, contends that

“[a]lthough the historical experiences in this country of African Americans, on the one hand, and gay men and lesbians, on the other, are in many important ways quite different, the legal questions raised here and in Loving are analogous. The state law at issue here, like the law struck down in Loving, restricts an individual’s right to marry the person of his or her choice. We respectfully submit that the decisions below must be reversed if this Court follows the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Loving” (Br. of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. as Amicus Curiae in Support of Plaintiffs, at 3-4; see also Br. of New York County Lawyers’ Association and National Black Justice Coalition as Amici Curiae in Support of Plaintiffs [detailing history of anti-miscegenation laws and public attitudes toward interracial marriage]).
It is no answer that same-sex couples can be excluded from marriage because “marriage,” by definition, does not include them. In the end, “an argument that marriage is heterosexual because it ‘just is’ amounts to circular reasoning” (Halpern v Attorney Gen. of Can., 65 OR3d 161, 172 OAC 276, ¶ 71 [2003]). “To define the institution of marriage by the characteristics of those to whom it always has been accessible, in order to justify the exclusion of those to whom it never has been accessible, is conclusory and bypasses the core question we are asked to decide” (Goodridge v Department of Pub. Health, 440 Mass 309, 348, 798 NE2d 941, 972-973 [2003] [Greaney, J., concurring]).

The claim that marriage has always had a single and unalterable meaning is a plain distortion of history. In truth, the common understanding of “marriage” has changed dramatically over the centuries (see Br. of Professors of History and Family Law as Amici Curiae in Support of Plaintiffs). Until well into the nineteenth century, for example, marriage was defined by the doctrine of coverture, according to which the wife’s legal identity was merged into that of her husband, whose property she became. A married woman, by definition, could not own property and could not enter into contracts.2 Such was the very “meaning” of marriage. Only since the mid-twentieth century has the institution of marriage come to be understood as a relationship between two equal partners, founded upon shared intimacy and mutual financial and emotional support. Indeed, as amici professors note, “The historical record shows that, through adjudication and legislation, all of New York’s sex-specific rules for marriage have been invalidated save for the one at issue here” (Br. of Professors of History and Family Law as Amici Curiae in Support of Plaintiffs, at 2).

That restrictions on same-sex marriage are prevalent cannot in itself justify their retention. After all, widespread public opposition to interracial marriage in the years before Loving could not sustain the anti-miscegenation laws. “[T]he fact that the governing majority in a State has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice” (Lawrence, 539 US at 577-578 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]; see also id. at 571 [fundamental right to engage in private consensual sexual conduct extends to homosexuals, notwithstanding that “for centuries there have been powerful voices to condemn homosexual conduct as immoral”]). The long duration of a constitutional wrong cannot justify its perpetuation, no matter how strongly tradition or public sentiment might support it.

II. Equal Protection

By virtue of their being denied entry into civil marriage, plaintiff couples are deprived of a number of statutory benefits and protections extended to married couples under New York law. Unlike married spouses, same-sex partners may be denied hospital visitation of their critically ill life partners. They must spend more of their joint income to obtain equivalent levels of health care coverage. They may, upon the death of their partners, find themselves at risk of losing the family home. The record is replete with examples of the hundreds of ways in which committed same-sex couples and their children are deprived of equal benefits under New York law. Same-sex families are, among other things, denied equal treatment with respect to intestacy, inheritance, tenancy by the entirety, taxes, insurance, health benefits, medical decisionmaking, workers’ compensation, the right to sue for wrongful death, and spousal privilege. Each of these statutory inequities, as well as the discriminatory exclusion of same-sex couples from the benefits and protections of civil marriage as a whole, violates their constitutional right to equal protection of the laws.

Correctly framed, the question before us is not whether the marriage statutes properly benefit those they are intended to benefit — any discriminatory classification does that — but whether there exists any legitimate basis for excluding those who are not covered by the law. That the language of the licensing statute does not expressly reference the implicit exclusion of same-sex couples is of no moment (see Domestic Relations Law § 13 [“persons intended to be married” must obtain a marriage license]). The Court has, properly, construed the statutory scheme as prohibiting same-sex marriage. That being so, the statute, in practical effect, becomes identical to — and, for purposes of equal protection analysis, must be analyzed as if it were — one explicitly providing that “civil marriage is hereby established for couples consisting of a man and a woman,” or, synonymously, “marriage between persons of the same sex is prohibited.”

On three independent grounds, this discriminatory classification is subject to heightened scrutiny, a test that defendants concede it cannot pass.

A. Heightened Scrutiny

1. Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Homosexuals meet the constitutional definition of a suspect class, that is, a group whose defining characteristic is “so seldom relevant to the achievement of any legitimate state interest that laws grounded in such considerations are deemed to reflect prejudice and antipathy — a view that those in the burdened class are not as worthy or deserving as others” (Cleburne, 473 US at 440). Accordingly, any classification discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation must be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling state interest (see e.g. Alevy v Downstate Med. Ctr., 39 NY2d 326, 332 [1976]; Matter of Aliessa v Novello, 96 NY2d 418, 431 [2001]).

“No single talisman can define those groups likely to be the target of classifications offensive to the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore warranting heightened or strict scrutiny” (Cleburne, 473 US at 472 n 24 [Marshall, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part]). Rather, such scrutiny is to be applied when analyzing legislative classifications involving groups who “may well be the target of the sort of prejudiced, thoughtless, or stereotyped action that offends principles of equality found in” the Constitution (id. at 472).

Although no single factor is dispositive, the Supreme Court has generally looked to three criteria in determining whether a group subject to legislative classification must be considered “suspect.” First, the Court has considered whether the group has historically been subjected to purposeful discrimination. Homosexuals plainly have been, as the Legislature expressly found when it recently enacted the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), barring discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit and the exercise of civil rights. Specifically, the Legislature found

“that many residents of this state have encountered prejudice on account of their sexual orientation, and that this prejudice has severely limited or actually prevented access to employment, housing and other basic necessities of life, leading to deprivation and suffering. The legislature further recognizes that this prejudice has fostered a general climate of hostility and distrust, leading in some instances to physical violence against those perceived to be homosexual or bisexual” (L 2002, ch 2, § 1; see also Br. of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Inc., et al. as Amici Curiae in Support of Plaintiffs, at 22-49 [detailing history of state-sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians]).
Second, the Court has considered whether the trait used to define the class is unrelated to the ability to perform and participate in society. When the State differentiates among its citizens “on the basis of stereotyped characteristics not truly indicative of their abilities” (Mass. Bd. of Retirement v Murgia, 427 US 307, 313 [1976]), the legislative classification must be closely scrutinized. Obviously, sexual orientation is irrelevant to one’s ability to perform or contribute.

Third, the Court has taken into account the group’s relative political powerlessness. Defendants contend that classifications based on sexual orientation should not be afforded heightened scrutiny because, they claim, homosexuals are sufficiently able to achieve protection from discrimination through the political process, as evidenced by the Legislature’s passage of SONDA in 2002. SONDA, however, was first introduced in 1971. It failed repeatedly for 31 years, until it was finally enacted just four years ago. Further, during the Senate debate on the Hate Crimes Act of 2000, one Senator noted that “[i]t’s no secret that for years we could have passed a hate-crimes bill if we were willing to take out gay people, if [we] were willing to take out sexual orientation” (New York State Senate Debate on Senate Bill S 4691-A, June 7, 2000, at 4609 [Statement of Sen. Schneiderman]; accord id. at 4548-4549 [Statement of Sen. Connor]). The simple fact is that New York has not enacted anything approaching comprehensive statewide domestic partnership protections for same-sex couples, much less marriage or even civil unions.

In any event, the Supreme Court has never suggested that racial or sexual classifications are not (or are no longer) subject to heightened scrutiny because of the passage of even comprehensive civil rights laws (see Cleburne, 473 US at 467 [Marshall, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part]). Indeed, sex discrimination was first held to deserve heightened scrutiny in 1973 — after passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963, federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination. Such measures acknowledge — rather than mark the end of — a history of purposeful discrimination (see Frontiero v Richardson, 411 US 677, 687-688 [1973] [citing anti-discrimination legislation to support conclusion that classifications based on sex merit heightened scrutiny]).

Nor is plaintiffs’ claim legitimately answered by the argument that the licensing statute does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation since it permits homosexuals to marry persons of the opposite sex and forbids heterosexuals to marry persons of the same sex. The purported “right” of gays and lesbians to enter into marriages with different-sex partners to whom they have no innate attraction cannot possibly cure the constitutional violation actually at issue here. “The right to marry is the right of individuals, not of … groups” (Perez v Sharp, 32 Cal 2d 711, 716, 198 P2d 17, 20 [1948]). “Human beings are bereft of worth and dignity by a doctrine that would make them as interchangeable as trains” (id. at 725, 198 P2d at 25). Limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples undeniably restricts gays and lesbians from marrying their chosen same-sex partners whom “to [them] may be irreplaceable” (id.) — and thus constitutes discrimination based on sexual orientation.3

2. Sex Discrimination

The exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage also discriminates on the basis of sex, which provides a further basis for requiring heightened scrutiny. Classifications based on sex must be substantially related to the achievement of important governmental objectives (see e.g. Craig v Boren, 429 US 190, 197 [1976]), and must have an “exceedingly persuasive justification” (Mississippi Univ. for Women v Hogan, 458 US 718, 724 [1982] [citations omitted]).

Under the Domestic Relations Law, a woman who seeks to marry another woman is prevented from doing so on account of her sex — that is, because she is not a man. If she were, she would be given a marriage license to marry that woman. That the statutory scheme applies equally to both sexes does not alter the conclusion that the classification here is based on sex. The “equal application” approach to equal protection analysis was expressly rejected by the Supreme Court in Loving: “[W]e reject the notion that the mere ‘equal application’ of a statute containing [discriminatory] classifications is enough to remove the classifications from the [constitutional] proscription of all invidious … discriminations” (388 US at 8). Instead, the Loving Court held that “[t]here can be no question but that Virginia’s miscegenation statutes rest solely upon distinctions drawn according to race [where the] statutes proscribe generally accepted conduct if engaged in by members of different races” (id. at 11; see also Johnson v California, 543 US 499, 506 [2005]; McLaughlin v Florida, 379 US 184, 191 [1964]; Anderson v Martin, 375 US 399, 403-404 [1964]; Shelley v Kraemer, 334 US 1, 21-22 [1948]; J.E.B. v Alabama ex rel. T.B., 511 US 127, 141-142 [1994] [government exercise of peremptory challenges on the basis of gender constitutes impermissible sex discrimination even though based on gender stereotyping of both men and women]).

3. Fundamental Right

“Equality of treatment and the due process right to demand respect for conduct protected by the substantive guarantee of liberty are linked in important respects, and a decision on the latter point advances both interests” (Lawrence, 539 US at 575). Because, as already discussed, the legislative classification here infringes on the exercise of the fundamental right to marry, the classification cannot be upheld unless it is necessary to the achievement of a compelling state interest (see Onofre, 51 NY2d at 492 n 6; Alevy, 39 NY2d at 332; Eisenstadt v Baird, 405 US 438, 447 n 7 [1972]). “[C]ritical examination of the state interests advanced in support of the classification is required” (Zablocki, 434 US at 383 [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]). And if “the means selected by the State for achieving” even “legitimate and substantial interests” unnecessarily impinge on the right to marry, the statutory distinction “cannot be sustained” (id. at 388).

B. Rational-Basis Analysis

Although the classification challenged here should be analyzed using heightened scrutiny, it does not satisfy even rational-basis review, which requires that the classification “rationally further a legitimate state interest” (Affronti v Crosson, 95 NY2d 713, 718 [2001], cert denied sub nom. Affronti v Lippman, 534 US 826 [2001]). Rational-basis review requires both the existence of a legitimate interest and that the classification rationally advance that interest. Although a number of interests have been proffered in support of the challenged classification at issue, none is rationally furthered by the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage. Some fail even to meet the threshold test of legitimacy.

Properly analyzed, equal protection requires that it be the legislated distinction that furthers a legitimate state interest, not the discriminatory law itself (see e.g. Cooper, 49 NY2d at 78; Romer v Evans, 517 US 620, 633 [1996]). Were it otherwise, an irrational or invidious exclusion of a particular group would be permitted so long as there was an identifiable group that benefitted from the challenged legislation. In other words, it is not enough that the State have a legitimate interest in recognizing or supporting opposite-sex marriages. The relevant question here is whether there exists a rational basis for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, and, in fact, whether the State’s interests in recognizing or supporting opposite-sex marriages are rationally furthered by the exclusion.

1. Children

Defendants primarily assert an interest in encouraging procreation within marriage. But while encouraging opposite-sex couples to marry before they have children is certainly a legitimate interest of the State, the exclusion of gay men and lesbians from marriage in no way furthers this interest. There are enough marriage licenses to go around for everyone.

Nor does this exclusion rationally further the State’s legitimate interest in encouraging heterosexual married couples to procreate. Plainly, the ability or desire to procreate is not a prerequisite for marriage. The elderly are permitted to marry, and many same-sex couples do indeed have children. Thus, the statutory classification here — which prohibits only same-sex couples, and no one else, from marrying — is so grossly underinclusive and overinclusive as to make the asserted rationale in promoting procreation “impossible to credit” (Romer, 517 US at 635).4 Indeed, even the Lawrence dissenters observed that “encouragement of procreation” could not “possibly” be a justification for denying marriage to gay and lesbian couples, “since the sterile and the elderly are allowed to marry” (539 US at 605 [Scalia, J., dissenting]; see also Lapides v Lapides, 254 NY 73, 80 [1930] [“inability to bear children” does not justify an annulment under the Domestic Relations Law]).

Of course, there are many ways in which the government could rationally promote procreation — for example, by giving tax breaks to couples who have children, subsidizing child care for those couples, or mandating generous family leave for parents. Any of these benefits — and many more — might convince people who would not otherwise have children to do so. But no one rationally decides to have children because gays and lesbians are excluded from marriage.

In holding that prison inmates have a fundamental right to marry — even though they cannot procreate — the Supreme Court has made it clear that procreation is not the sine qua non of marriage. “Many important attributes of marriage remain … after taking into account the limitations imposed by prison life. … [I]nmate marriages, like others, are expressions of emotional support and public commitment. These elements are an important and significant aspect of the marital relationship” (Turner, 482 US at 95-96). Nor is there any conceivable rational basis for allowing prison inmates to marry, but not homosexuals. It is, of course, no answer that inmates could potentially procreate once they are released — that is, once they are no longer prisoners — since, as non-prisoners, they would then undeniably have a right to marry even in the absence of Turner.

Marriage is about much more than producing children, yet same-sex couples are excluded from the entire spectrum of protections that come with civil marriage — purportedly to encourage other people to procreate. Indeed, the protections that the State gives to couples who do marry — such as the right to own property as a unit or to make medical decisions for each other — are focused largely on the adult relationship, rather than on the couple’s possible role as parents. Nor does the plurality even attempt to explain how offering only heterosexuals the right to visit a sick loved one in the hospital, for example, conceivably furthers the State’s interest in encouraging opposite-sex couples to have children, or indeed how excluding same-sex couples from each of the specific legal benefits of civil marriage — even apart from the totality of marriage itself — does not independently violate plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection of the laws. The breadth of protections that the marriage laws make unavailable to gays and lesbians is “so far removed” from the State’s asserted goal of promoting procreation that the justification is, again, “impossible to credit” (Romer, 517 US at 635).

The State plainly has a legitimate interest in the welfare of children, but excluding same-sex couples from marriage in no way furthers this interest. In fact, it undermines it. Civil marriage provides tangible legal protections and economic benefits to married couples and their children, and tens of thousands of children are currently being raised by same-sex couples in New York. Depriving these children of the benefits and protections available to the children of opposite-sex couples is antithetical to their welfare, as defendants do not dispute (see e.g. Baker v State, 170 Vt 194, 219, 744 A2d 864, 882 [1999] [“(i)f anything, the exclusion of same-sex couples from the legal protections incident to marriage exposes their children to the precise risks that the State argues the marriage laws are designed to secure against” (emphasis in original)]; cf. Matter of Jacob, 86 NY2d 651, 656 [1995] [“(t)o rule otherwise would mean that the thousands of New York children actually being raised in homes headed by two unmarried persons could have only one legal parent, not the two who want them”]). The State’s interest in a stable society is rationally advanced when families are established and remain intact irrespective of the gender of the spouses.

Nor may the State legitimately seek either to promote heterosexual parents over homosexual parents, as the plurality posits, or to discourage same-sex parenting. First, granting such a preference to heterosexuals would be an acknowledgment of purposeful discrimination against homosexuals, thus constituting a flagrant equal protection violation. Second, such a preference would be contrary to the stated public policy of New York, and therefore irrational (see 18 NYCRR 421.16 [h] [2] [applicants to be adoptive parents “shall not be rejected solely on the basis of homosexuality”]; see also Jacob, 86 NY2d at 668 [same-sex partner of a legal parent may adopt that parent’s child; “[a]ny proffered justification for rejecting [adoptions] based on a governmental policy disapproving of homosexuality or encouraging marriage would not apply”]; Br. of American Psychological Association et al. as Amici Curiae in Support of Plaintiffs, at 34-43 [collecting the results of social scientific research studies which conclude that children raised by same-sex parents fare no differently from, and do as well as, those raised by opposite-sex parents in terms of the quality of the parent-child relationship and the mental health, development and social adjustment of the child]; Br. of Association to Benefit Children et al. as Amici Curiae in Support of Plaintiffs, at 31-35 [same conclusion]).5

2. Moral Disapproval

The government cannot legitimately justify discrimination against one group of persons as a mere desire to preference another group (see Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v Ward, 470 US 869, 882 & n 10 [1985]). Further, the Supreme Court has held that classifications “drawn for the purpose of disadvantaging the group burdened by the law” can never be legitimate (Romer, 517 US at 633), and that “a bare … desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest” (United States Dept. of Agric. v Moreno, 413 US 528, 534 [1973] [emphasis in original]; see also Onofre, 51 NY2d at 490 [“disapproval by a majority of the populace … may not substitute for the required demonstration of a valid basis for intrusion by the State in an area of important personal decision”]; Palmore v Sidoti, 466 US 429, 433 [1984] [“(p)rivate biases may be outside the reach of the law, but the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect”]; Lawrence, 539 US at 571 [no legitimate basis to penalize gay and lesbian relationships notwithstanding that “for centuries there have been powerful voices to condemn homosexual conduct as immoral”]; id. at 582-583 [O’Connor, J., concurring in the judgment] [“moral disapproval” of homosexuals cannot be a legitimate state interest]).

3. Tradition

That civil marriage has traditionally excluded same-sex couples — i.e., that the “historic and cultural understanding of marriage” has been between a man and a woman — cannot in itself provide a rational basis for the challenged exclusion. To say that discrimination is “traditional” is to say only that the discrimination has existed for a long time. A classification, however, cannot be maintained merely “for its own sake” (Romer, 517 US at 635). Instead, the classification (here, the exclusion of gay men and lesbians from civil marriage) must advance a state interest that is separate from the classification itself (see Romer, 517 US at 633, 635). Because the “tradition” of excluding gay men and lesbians from civil marriage is no different from the classification itself, the exclusion cannot be justified on the basis of “history.” Indeed, the justification of “tradition” does not explain the classification; it merely repeats it. Simply put, a history or tradition of discrimination — no matter how entrenched — does not make the discrimination constitutional (see also Goodridge, 440 Mass at 332 n 23, 798 NE2d at 962 n 23 [“it is circular reasoning, not analysis, to maintain that marriage must remain a heterosexual institution because that is what it historically has been”]).6

4. Uniformity

The State asserts an interest in maintaining uniformity with the marriage laws of other states. But our marriage laws currently are not uniform with those of other states. For example, New York — unlike most other states in the nation — permits first cousins to marry (see Domestic Relations Law § 5). This disparity has caused no trouble, however, because wellsettled principles of comity resolve any conflicts. The same well-settled principles of comity would resolve any conflicts arising from any disparity involving the recognition of same-sex marriages.

It is, additionally, already impossible to maintain uniformity among all the states, inasmuch as Massachusetts has now legalized same-sex marriage. Indeed, of the seven jurisdictions that border New York State, only Pennsylvania currently affords no legal status to same-sex relationships. Massachusetts, Ontario and Quebec all authorize same-sex marriage; Vermont and Connecticut provide for civil unions (see 15 Vt Stat Ann tit 15, § 1204 [a]; Conn Gen Stat § 46b-38nn); and New Jersey has a statewide domestic partnership law (see NJ Stat Ann § 26:8A-1 et seq.). Moreover, insofar as a number of localities within New York offer domestic partnership registration, even the law within the State is not uniform. Finally, and most fundamentally, to justify the exclusion of gay men and lesbians from civil marriage because “others do it too” is no more a justification for the discriminatory classification than the contention that the discrimination is rational because it has existed for a long time. As history has well taught us, separate is inherently unequal.

III. The Legislature

The Court ultimately concludes that the issue of samesex marriage should be addressed by the Legislature. If the Legislature were to amend the statutory scheme by making it gender neutral, obviously the instant controversy would disappear. But this Court cannot avoid its obligation to remedy constitutional violations in the hope that the Legislature might some day render the question presented academic. After all, by the time the Court decided Loving in 1967, many states had already repealed their anti-miscegenation laws. Despite this trend, however, the Supreme Court did not refrain from fulfilling its constitutional obligation.

The fact remains that although a number of bills to authorize same-sex marriage have been introduced in the Legislature over the past several years, none has ever made it out of committee (see 2005 NY Senate-Assembly Bill S 5156, A 7463; 2005 NY Assembly Bill A 1823; 2003 NY Senate Bill S 3816; 2003 NY Assembly Bill A 7392; 2001 NY Senate Bill S 1205; see also 2005 NY Senate-Assembly Bill S 1887-A, A 3693-A [proposing establishment of domestic partnerships]; 2004 NY Senate-Assembly Bill S 3393-A, A 7304-A [same]).

It is uniquely the function of the Judicial Branch to safeguard individual liberties guaranteed by the New York State Constitution, and to order redress for their violation. The Court’s duty to protect constitutional rights is an imperative of the separation of powers, not its enemy.

I am confident that future generations will look back on today’s decision as an unfortunate misstep.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Footnotes

(1) In other contexts, this Court has also recognized that due process rights must be afforded to all, even as against a history of exclusion of one group or another from past exercise of these rights (see e.g. Matter of Raquel Marie X., 76 NY2d 387, 397 [1990] [affording the right to custody of one’s children to unwed fathers, despite a long history of excluding unwed fathers from that right]; Rivers v Katz, 67 NY2d 485, 495-496 [1986] [affording the right to refuse medical treatment to the mentally disabled, despite a long history of excluding the mentally ill from that right]).

(2) Moreover, until as recently as 1984, a husband could not be prosecuted for raping his wife (see People v Liberta, 64 NY2d 152 [1984]).

(3) Indeed, the true nature and extent of the discrimination suffered by gays and lesbians in this regard is perhaps best illustrated by the simple truth that each one of the plaintiffs here could lawfully enter into a marriage of convenience with a complete stranger of the opposite sex tomorrow, and thereby immediately obtain all of the myriad benefits and protections incident to marriage. Plaintiffs are, however, denied these rights because they each desire instead to marry the person they love and with whom they have created their family.

(4) Although the plurality asserts that the Legislature could not possibly exclude from marriage opposite-sex couples unable to have children because to do so would require “grossly intrusive inquiries” (plurality op at 16), no explanation is given as to why the Legislature could not easily remedy the irrationality inherent in allowing all childless couples to marry — if, as the plurality believes, the sole purpose of marriage is procreation — by simply barring from civil marriage all couples in which both spouses are older than, say, 55. In that event, the State would have no need to undertake intrusive inquiries of any kind.

(5) Nor could the State have a legitimate interest in privileging some children over others depending on the manner in which they were conceived or whether or not their parents were married (see Jacob, 86 NY2d at 667 [depriving children of legal relationship with de facto parents “based solely on their biological mother’s sexual orientation or marital status … raise[s] constitutional concerns”]; Levy v Louisiana, 391 US 68, 71 [1968] [child born out of wedlock may not be denied rights enjoyed by other citizens]).

(6) Ultimately, as the Lawrence dissenters recognized, “ ‘preserving the traditional institution of marriage’ is just a kinder way of describing the State’s moral disapproval of samesex couples” (539 US at 601 [Scalia, J., dissenting] [emphasis in original]), an illegitimate basis for depriving gay and lesbian couples of the equal protection of the laws.



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