It is something of a consolation, albeit a small one, that the best arguments advocates for a constitutional “right” to same-sex marriage can muster are so transparently bad. Disconnected from nature, from history, from the canons of legal reasoning, and even from the standards of logic itself, their arguments betray themselves at every turn, as acts of the will and not of reasoned judgment. When the advocate advancing the arguments wears a black robe and sits on the federal bench, of course, even falsehood and fallacy have a decent chance of ultimate victory.
Such an advocate is Judge Vaughn Walker of the U.S. district court in San Francisco. After two and a half weeks of trial in January, and a day of closing arguments in June, he finally delivered his ruling and opinion in Perry v. Schwarzenegger on August 4, overturning California’s Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution adopted by the people in November 2008, declaring that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The California Supreme Court, in May of that year, had overturned an earlier popular referendum protecting marriage (that had only statutory status) on grounds that it violated the state constitution. And so the people of the state, against the odds and facing elite opposition, amended that constitution just six months later. Judge Walker has shifted the ground of the controversy to the federal constitution, and has flung wide the door of the federal courts to embrace (he hopes) some of the worst sophistical knavery that has been seen in quite some time in the pages of American jurisprudence.
Perhaps the most surprising thing in the judge’s opinion is his declaration that “gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage.” This line, quoted everywhere within hours with evident astonishment, appears to be the sheerest ipse dixit—a judicial “because I said so”—and the phrase “no longer” conveys that palpable sense that one is being mugged by a progressive. But Judge Walker’s remark here is actually the conclusion of a fairly complex argument. The problem is that the argument is not only complex but wholly fallacious.
Judges, especially those of the lower courts, know that their innovations in constitutional law are best armored by an appearance of continuity with history and precedent. And so Judge Walker begins by reminding us that the right to marry has long been considered “fundamental” in our jurisprudence. And so it has, for those—namely couples of men and women—considered capable of entering into the relationship of marriage. Are the same-sex plaintiffs in the Perry case asking then for a “new” right, or for admission without unjust barriers of discrimination to the enjoyment of an old one? At first glance it looks like the first of these is the case. But any road that leads to the second conclusion will be smoothest for the judge-advocate’s purposes, since it will provide that much-desired appearance of continuity with the law’s long history.
Yet how to pave that road? By distinguishing between the “core” attributes of the institution of marriage and those that are only incidental, those historical attributes that have been abandoned without harm to what is essential about marriage. Many American states, for instance, once considered race an important attribute, so that racial difference was a barrier to the formation of a marriage. But race is now universally understood not to matter, and the Supreme Court even said in 1967 that the Constitution did not tolerate such a legal rule.
By the same token, says Judge Walker, the doctrine of coverture, in the common law, in which a wife’s legal identity was subsumed by that of her husband as the superior partner in the marriage—that too has been abandoned by a more modern understanding of the sexes as equal partners. Thus, concludes the judge, there has been a “movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles.” And this has not been an essential change in the “core” of the marriage institution, but merely a shedding of an extraneous characteristic, thanks to “an evolution in the understanding of gender.”
And now watch carefully, for here the fallacious reasoning enters the equation. When “the genders” are no longer “seen as having distinct roles,” it is revealed that at marriage’s “core” there is ample space for same-sex couples too. Since “gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage,” indeed since it never really did, “plaintiffs’ relationships are consistent with the core of the history, tradition and practice of marriage in the United States.” There, you see? There is something eminently conservative about the admission of same-sex couples to the marital bond. What could we have been thinking, denying them this right for all these centuries?
Judge Walker seems to have committed the fallacy of composition—taking something true of a part and concluding that it is also true of the whole of which it is a part. If it is true that “gender” no longer matters as it once did in the relation of husband and wife, he reasons, therefore it no longer matters whether the relation is one of husband and wife; it may as well be a relation of husband and husband or of wife and wife, since we now know that marriage is not, at its “core,” a “gendered institution.” But restated in this way, it is quite plain that the judge’s conclusion doesn’t follow from his premises. To say that the status of men and women in marriage is one of equal partners is not to say that men and women are the same, such that it does not matter what sex their partners are. The equalization of status is not the obliteration of difference, as much as Judge Walker would like to pretend it is.
Once having admitted same-sex couples to the ranks of those holding the “fundamental right” to marry, the judge has easier sport in his sights, manipulating the “levels of scrutiny” that so afflict modern constitutional law, and concluding withal that the voters who approved Proposition 8 acted without any “rational basis” for their decision to preserve marriage in the only form in which our law has ever known it. Now conservatism gets a hiding from Judge Walker: “Tradition alone . . . cannot form a rational basis for a law.”
Well, yes, to be sure. Tradition must give its reasons—though in the common-law legal tradition, it is novelty that usually bears a heavier burden in this respect. And is it really as easy as the judge thinks to dismiss a “tradition” so bound up with commonsense understandings of nature, of human flourishing, of the purposes of marriage and family? Confidently sweeping aside such understandings, Judge Walker declares that “moral and religious views form the only basis for a belief that same-sex couples are different from opposite-sex couples.”
This is a very telling conjunction. Once it would have been thought to strengthen the case for a law, that it rested on the moral views of the lawmakers, if no countervailing right against being governed by such views could be adduced. And it would have been a matter of no legal suspicion whatsoever that the moral views informing a law found confirmation in widely held religious views as well. For such moral principles are not articles of faith, in the sense of being specially revealed to the elect or the faithful. They are the conclusions of trains of reasoning about right and wrong, and about human ends and the fitness of the means to them. In language we might borrow from Plato’s Euthyphro, the moral norms that govern marriage are embraced by the pious not because they are mysterious commands of an inscrutable divine will, but because they are rationally knowable as good in themselves, and for this reason find support in the dictates of faith as well.
But for Judge Walker there is an odor of illegitimacy about merely “moral” views expressed in legislation, especially when morality finds support in religion. Thus he declares that Proposition 8 expresses only a “private moral choice,” not a considered public morality. And thus in his tendentious “findings of fact” (about the purpose of which, see this editorial in National Review), he makes the astonishing claim—purporting to be a fact found at trial, not a judgment of his own—that “religious beliefs that gay and lesbian relationships are sinful . . . harm gays and lesbians.”
Perhaps here, in this nadir of absurdity, we have found the real fundament of the judge’s thinking. Citizens who wish to defend the institution of marriage as they and their families have known it all their lives, and for countless generations, are irrational bigots. Worse still, if they are moved to act because of the union of their faith with their moral opinions, they are crazy religious folk, bent only on harming others whom they merely “dislike” on grounds that cannot possibly be defended before a tribunal of right-thinking people. And those others, the same-sex-couple plaintiffs? They must be rescued from the “harm” to their feelings that results from their exclusion from a historic civil and moral institution that has never hitherto been thought to have been built for them.
That Judge Vaughn Walker evidently cannot grasp what an effrontery his opinion is to the faith, the morals, and yes, the feelings of the vast majority of his fellow Americans is the final irony of his ruling in Perryv. Schwarzenegger. But perhaps he can be taught a lesson about the violence he has done to the rule of law, and to the United States Constitution. His fellow citizens, more accustomed than he to governing themselves by canons of reasoned judgment, may have to teach the lesson, if his superiors on the bench will not do so.
Matthew J. Franck is the director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.