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The Gay-Wedding Present

Don’t call off the caterer just yet: New York’s same-sex-marriage court defeat is a gift in disguise.


Illustration by Istvan Banyai  

Of course men who love men and women who love women should be entitled to all the advantages of marriage, legal and financial and ineffable, including the secret handshakes and special discounts on Juicy Juice and minivans. But we shouldn’t be gnashing our teeth and tearing out our hair just because New York’s appellate court ruled, 4-2, that the state constitution doesn’t require that gay people be allowed to marry. In fact, paradoxically, the decision looks to me like a blessing in disguise, a pseudo-setback. Because the more that marriage equality can be achieved politically rather than by judicial fiat, the better in the long run—not just for gay rights but for progressivism generally. When courts make certain “good” decisions too far ahead of public opinion and legislative consensus, the result can be hugely problematic, as we’ve seen since Roe v. Wade.

So concerning Massachusetts, where the supreme court in 2004 did what New York’s has now declined to do, I won’t be dispirited when that state’s legislature finally gives the go-ahead for a public referendum on a state constitutional amendment to prevent gays from marrying—because I’m confident Massachusetts voters will do the right thing and defeat the proposal, thus giving same-sex marriage even deeper, more democratic standing. Losing certain battles can help the war be won more soundly.

Not that the New York court’s opinion was remotely persuasive. It didn’t find that the heterocentric legal definition of marriage was correct, merely (as constitutional precedent requires) “rational”—or, as Judge Robert S. Smith wrote, not “wholly irrational.” And that ostensible rationality, claims Smith (a Federalist Society conservative who was a Paul, Weiss partner until 2003 and lives on the Upper West Side), is all about protecting children—not about the fact that lots of people find homosexuality weird and icky. In groping for a way to impute rationality, the decision repeatedly uses a strangely conditional future tense (the Legislature could find; the Legislature could believe) and appends it to entirely lame rationales. “The Legislature could rationally believe that it is better . . . for children to grow up with both a mother and a father.” It could, but if so, why has our Legislature made adoption by gay couples legal?

“The right to marry is unquestionably a fundamental right,” the opinion declares, which is why restrictions on marriage violate the Constitution, but “[t]he right to marry someone of the same sex . . . is not ‘deeply rooted.’ ” However, the decision also claims that longstanding custom is not the real issue: “If we were convinced that the restriction plaintiffs attack were founded on nothing but prejudice . . . we would hold it invalid, no matter how long its history.” Really? Because if it’s not prejudice against homosexuals that sustains the law, then what do you call it? Prejudice can even be rational—as with racial profiling—but that doesn’t make it right as a basis of law.

Gay sex was criminal in nine states until 2003, when the Supreme Court decided in Lawrence v. Texas that if it’s legal for heteros to engage in sex not involving penises entering vaginas, it ought to be legal for homos, too—“moral disapproval” doesn’t justify banning it. So, as Justice Antonin Scalia suggested in his dissent, why wouldn’t the same argument apply to gay marriage? Well, the New York court said, you know, um, it just doesn’t, that’s why: Lawrence concerned “private activity,” whereas marriage is inherently public.

What clearly drove this opinion was not a dispassionate consideration of precedent and logic but a nervous scramble to practice judicial restraint and avoid radically overturning ancient custom. It’s what constitutional experts disparage as a “results- oriented” ruling—stacking the deck to get to the decision you want. Results-oriented judicial restraint is supposed to be an oxymoron; until now, that phrase was un-Google-able. “We . . . express our hope,” the opinion concluded, “that the participants in the controversy over same-sex marriage will address their arguments to the Legislature . . . and that those unhappy with the result . . . will respect it as people in a democratic state should respect choices democratically made.”

In other words, they tossed this very hot potato back to the political system, back to us—a disingenuous and maybe cowardly act that may help achieve the optimal outcome.

The first gay marriages on earth took place just five years ago, in the Netherlands, and we la-di-da avant-garde urbanites have to remind ourselves that the prospect of homosexuals marrying homosexuals still seems profoundly . . . queer, in the old sense, to most Americans. About 40 percent say they know no gay people. Even public opinion in New York City isn’t so far ahead of the curve: According to a Times poll last year, only a minority of New Yorkers support gay marriage. All across the country, there’s enough visceral opposition and ambivalence to make it an election issue, as in 2004, that really works for Republican panderers. And the more that appointed judges rather than elected legislatures reform existing marriage laws, the more galvanized the right-wing hot-button backlash will become, and the greater the support for a national constitutional amendment—passage of which would be a deeply depressing disaster.


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