Thursday, March 4, 2021

Slight left turn at the Supreme Court


The Supreme Court of the United States ruled by a 5-to-4 vote today that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage, the New York Times reports.

Rainbow-colored lights shine on the White House today. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images News)

With this morning’s decision, here, jubilation swept over the land, as did changes to the laws of 14 states where same-sex marriage has been banned. Activists, however, say there’s still work to be done to eliminate discrimination against gay and lesbian couples, the Baltimore Sun reports.

“In more than half the states, a same-sex couple can get married on a Saturday and go to work on Monday and be fired for their sexual orientation,” the Sun quoted Keith Thirion, director of advocacy and programs at Equality Maryland, as saying. “Even as we’re celebrating, we’re still looking ahead at the work that needs to be done.”

We join with those who celebrate this landmark ruling from a normally conservative court. Justice Anthony M Kennedy joined the four more liberal justices in creating the majority, and he wrote the court’s opinion in the case.

“No longer may this liberty be denied,” he wrote for the majority in the historic decision. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

Plaintiffs sought “equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” and they got it from this court. But I also think this is a victory for marriage in general: the high court has elevated the status of the marital union to one based on love, not just on some insulting and demeaning requirement to procreate. Society, in my memory anyway, has always viewed marriage as a bond of love between two people, and those thoughts probably go back at least to the Romantic movement in the late 1700s and the Age of Enlightenment.

Furthermore, heterosexual couples, I think, along with Christian churches, should embrace this new direction our secular laws have taken us. It is quite refreshing—and reaffirms my own strong belief in marriage—to see the right given by the Supreme Court to so many people who have fought for but been denied that right for so long. Certainly, we once again see that God fulfills himself in many ways, and any one custom left unchanged for too long, no matter how good it may be, will corrupt the world.

The Supreme Court’s expansion of the definition of marriage, which now includes people who are in committed, loving relationships, follows logically from the teachings of Jesus, who expanded existing definitions of “neighbor” in the good Samaritan parable, and of Pope Francis, who expanded the meaning of “climate change” in Laudato Si to include considerations of morality and the sanctity of life.

As homosexual couples celebrate their acquisition of a new “right,” I celebrate the unfolding of the universe exactly as it should be unfolding. I celebrate the commitment to love in the marital union. I sing the elevation of relationships and the concurrent status reduction of the short-lived, flesh-based pleasures of sex. This is historic indeed.

Finally, as an American, in a country that wrote slavery into its Constitution only to abolish it, in a country that’s free to practice individual religious beliefs without interfering with the beliefs of others, and in a country that still has lots of work to do in bringing equality to all people in all dimensions of their being, I’m speechless at the ruling today.

And so, I leave you with the words of Thomas Jefferson, who might not have seen same-sex marriage coming when he wrote these words but certainly knew things would change down the road for his new country:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors. —Thomas Jefferson

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.


  1. The “slight left turn” in our headline refers to the fact that more decisions that would be coded as “liberal” were reached by the Supreme Court this past term than would be coded as “conservative.” However, as Linda Greenhouse points out in today’s New York Times, many decisions that would be coded as “liberal,” including three of the four biggest ones, were mostly cases in which the Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling.

    These may be considered “mistakes” on the part of the petitioners in that bringing a case to the Court is expensive and risks setting into national law a decision you don’t agree with if you bet wrong on how the Supreme Court will rule. It’s an interesting political theory and suggests the Supreme Court hasn’t turned left at all but is simply, conservatively, holding the line. In other words, justices are just making sure they can return reasonably intact after their undeniable flight south for the winter (see Citizens United, e.g.).

    Seen through this lens, it’s not random that King v Burwell, rejecting a cooked-up linguistic assault on the Affordable Care Act, affirmed a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Texas Department of Housing v Inclusive Communities, rejecting an attack on the Fair Housing Act, affirmed a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell v Hodges, doesn’t quite fit this pattern because it overturned a ruling against marriage by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. But that court was an outlier; every other circuit to reach the issue had gone the other way, so Justice Kennedy’s opinion affirmed what had become the clear majority rule in the federal courts.

    In any event, we believe that reducing the leanings of the Supreme Court to a single label oversimplifies the matter and biases our judgment. Thanks to Ms Greenhouse for her much more thoughtful analysis that was a pleasure to read and learn from.

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