The California Marriage Protection Act, which provided that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” was voted into law by Californians in the November 2008 election. Earlier this month, Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker overturned the law more commonly known as Proposition 8.
This has supporters of the proposition in an uproar, claiming that Walker denied the people of California their free will. It’s ironic that the California Marriage Protection Act itself denies an entire class of people their free will to marry. Of course, Proposition 8 supporters would argue that all it does is to explicitly define “marriage” in the state’s constitution as it has been defined for millennia.
In fact, polygamy—one of the more ancient practices—was long considered a legitimate marriage, both in religions and in society. It was not uncommon for a marriage between an adult and a girl in her early teens to be recognized without controversy. Because the Confucian philosophy dictated that Chinese marriage brings together families of different surnames, it was not considered incestuous to marry one’s maternal relative, and families would intermarry from one generation to another.
In modern marriage, neither religion nor moralities have any relevance, at least insofar as the state of California is concerned. Walker made this case in his ruling when he wrote the following clause:
Marriage in the United States has always been a civil matter. Civil authorities may permit religious leaders to solemnize marriages but not to determine who may enter or leave a civil marriage. Religious leaders may determine independently whether to recognize a civil marriage or divorce but that recognition or lack thereof has no effect on the relationship under state law.
He was also careful to recognize that overturning the law in no way impinges on anyone’s religious freedoms:
Proposition 8 does not affect the First Amendment rights of those opposed to marriage for same-sex couples. Prior to Proposition 8, no religious group was required to recognize marriage for same-sex couples.
A marriage in a California church, temple, or synagogue is not legally recognized if the state has not licensed the couple to marry. A legal marriage licensed by the state is valid even if there has been no religious ceremony. From the perspective of the state of California—which is the only jurisdiction of the California Marriage Protection Act—marriage is simply a legal status of two consenting persons, with the associated rights and responsibilities prescribed by law.
Furthermore, within the scope of authority of Proposition 8, marriage is a state matter. California is obligated to execute state law only to the extent that it is constitutional under the United States Constitution. That constitution happens to have an equal-protection clause—Amendment XIV—that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Judge Walker wrote that “Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license.” Proposition 8 reflected the will of the people of California…to enact an unconstitutional law. For that reason, it should not stand.