Sunday, June 30, 2013

Movement Toward Gay Marriage and the Myth of Roe v. Wade

Although I rarely find Charles Krauthammer to make a meaningful contribution to a public discussion, and his column on the DOMA decision isn't really an exception, he is repeating some unimpressive arguments raised often enough that it may be worth attempting to push them back. Before I get to the current column, I'll travel back in time seven years to some of his prior musings on the subject. Back then, Krauthammer was pushing the anti-gay marriage canard that if you allow gay marriage it inevitably follows that you should legalize polygamy:
In an essay 10 years ago, I pointed out that it is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one's autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement -- the number restriction (two and only two) -- is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.
Right there, Krauthammer give us pretty much all the evidence we need that his thinking on this issue is weak, and that he doesn't understand the legal issues involved in the case. I don't want to assume to much, but I would hope that even Krauthammer would concede that to apply a similar argument to anti-miscegenation laws would be an "epic fail".
After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) the same race, and if, as advocates of interracial marriage insist, the race requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one's autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement -- the number restriction (two and only two) -- is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.
I know that opponents of marriage equality argue vociferously that "allowing gay marriage is completely different from allowing interracial marriage", but the reason that comparison comes up is because of arguments like Krauthammer's. By his "logic", there is no distinction - if you don't allow discrimination in which of two, unmarried adults can get married, you cannot defend restricting the institution of marriage to two unmarried adults.

The response of many opponents of gay marriage is that being gay is not a protected category - it's not on the short list of factors that the state is supposed to scrupulously avoid using to discriminate between citizens - and thus the reasoning behind Loving does not extend to gay marriage. That because the discrimination is not based upon a protected class such as race, religion, national origin, color, (in their opinion) sex, or another such category, that the courts should not concern themselves with the question. Krauthammer does not appear to be working from the "protected category" argument, because "married vs. unmarried" isn't on that list.

The language of DOMA permitted the Supreme Court to resolve the case from a different angle - that Congress intruded into an area of law traditionally left to the states (domestic relations) in order to impose restrictions and disabilities on a class of people, and thus ultimately violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government. What frightens opponents of marriage equality is that the court all but said that there is not even a rational basis for opposing gay marriage - that should the issue be squarely raised. Given that the two leading arguments against gay marriage (and you'll forgive me if I missed a third)1 are "tradition" and various forms of "gay sex is icky", it's not surprising that they are concerned that a future court might find there to be no rational basis for the continued state-level prohibition.

Perhaps Krauthammer accepts that the arguments against gay marriage are fundamentally weak. Perhaps, like many gay marriage opponents, he starts channeling Rick Santorum - never mind that the same "slippery slope" argument applies to anti-miscegenation laws (and were probably applied to that particular marriage equality argument in certain parts of the country). The slippery slope argument can be raised about any change, and its use is usually fallacious. In this particular instance, no surprise, it is fallacious.

We can start with this: When you have two unmarried individuals, the marriage contract is between them and them alone. If you then say, "We don't care if you're married already, you are free to marry an additional spouse," you risk infringing the rights of the existing spouse. And if you require that spouse's knowing consent to the new marriage - or should I say, all spouses - you're conceding a significant difference between the marriage of unmarried people and the marriage where one or more of the parties to the marriage is already married. Adding additional spouses is not, as Krauthammer blithely asserts an "individual choice" because the marriage already involves more than one individual. States have created bodies of law addressing the rights and duties of married couples, property division upon divorce, child custody upon separation or divorce, what property is part of the marital estate, pension and inheritance rights, access to health insurance benefits, taxes, housing laws, eligibility for social services.... When you add additional parties to the mix, every single one of those laws would need to be revisited and would become ridiculously complex.

There's a reason why the few nations that permit polygamy restrict that right to the male partner, and given him most of the rights within the marriage including in relation to assets and the children - because once you move toward an egalitarian arrangement it becomes extraordinarily difficult to create legal institutions around multi-partner marriages. In those cultures, the marriage is a constant that revolves around the man. Women can enter or leave the marriage. But if you attempt to create egalitarian multi-partner marriages you create a context in which the marriage can continue even after one or more partners leaves. You could end up with a marriage in which the original parties to the marriage are no longer involved, a 'divorce' that creates two or more new 'marriages' in its wake, and claims to custody or visitation from a wide assortment of moms and dads.

If you're not willing to directly address the weakness of the argument for proscribing gay marriage, perhaps it's not surprising that you've given even less thought to the weakness of the slippery slope argument you throw up as a shield. But whether or not you support polygamy, you cannot avoid the fact that there is a rational distinction between categorizing people as "married" versus "unmarried", and you cannot avoid acknowledging the complexity of rebuilding our nation's laws to accommodate marriages involving multiple parties.2

Krauthammer agrees that gay marriage poses no threat to "traditional marriage", so his argument really is one of fairness,
Posit a union of, say, three gay women all deeply devoted to each other. On what grounds would gay activists dismiss their union as mere activity rather than authentic love and self-expression?
That's a group choice, not, as he earlier posited, an individual choice. Here, Krauthammer is shifting the question from "is there a rational basis for the state to treat unmarried people differently from married people" to "If we allow gay marriage, is it unfair to people who want polygamous marriage." The "logic" here appears to be that it's better to be unfair to large numbers of people than it is to be unfair to smaller numbers of people, without regard to whether the distinction can be explained or justified - and that argument ultimately betrays the fact that Krauthammer's argument lacks a logical foundation. His argument boils down to, "It may be unfair to gay people to not allow them to marry, but allowing gay marriage would not end the unfairness to polygamists that they can't engage in multi-partner marriages, so we shouldn't do it.
As for gay marriage, I've come to a studied ambivalence. I think it is a mistake for society to make this ultimate declaration of indifference between gay and straight life, if only for reasons of pedagogy. On the other hand, I have gay friends and feel the pain of their inability to have the same level of social approbation and confirmation of their relationship with a loved one that I'm not about to go to anyone's barricade to deny them that. It is critical, however, that any such fundamental change in the very definition of marriage be enacted democratically and not (as in the disastrous case of abortion) by judicial fiat.
"...if only for reasons of pedagogy"? How... compelling. To me, that does not sound like an expression of "studied ambivalence" - it sounds like a preference for the status quo and the willingness to disregard the consequences of his policy preferences on any class of people who aren't Charles Krauthammer. As for the conclusion about judicial fiat... call it foreshadowing.

For a guy who wants us to see him as "ambivelent" on the subject of gay marriage, Krauthammer seems to have little conflict - beyond that one-time nod to the pain suffered by his "gay friends", but all of his arguments come down on the other side. For example, he imagines that gay marriage will lead to a "war on religion", picturing a religious college that is sued for denying a married, gay couple the opportunity to live in married student housing. Never mind that the school could avoid being a casualty of this imagined war simply by refusing federal money - a notion that I guess Krauthammer finds far more disturbing than discrimination against gay couples. Krauthammer complains, "It will be sued everywhere in the country if it’s declared to be a constitutional right, because it would imply that anybody who opposes it does it only out of bigotry, for no other reason". Given that the only other reasons for opposing gay marriage that Krauthammer has acknowledged are "pedagogy" and that "allowing gay marriage would be unfair to polygamists"... I suppose he makes a valid point. To assume that all marriage opponents are anti-gay bigots can be said to be making the mistake of attributing to malice something that at times will be better explained by ignorance.

Krauthammer's ambivelence is cast further into doubt by his recent column on the subject. Krauthammer proposes that there are only two possible grounds for holding DOMA to be unconstitutional, federalism and leaving the institution of marriage to the states, and equal protection. Krauthammer sees the two justifications as irreconcilable, and thus that it's inevitable that the Supreme Court will rule that all states must allow gay marriage. I'm not sure whether I should take that to mean that Krauthammer is implicitly conceding that there's no rational basis for laws prohibiting gay marriage, or if he's unable to fathom why the court does not find "reasons of pedagogy" to be an adequate basis for discrimination.

From a technical standpoint, Krauthammer is conflating a decision holding that the federal government cannot arbitrarily curb the rights of a group of people with an emphasis on interstate recognition of marriage, with state legislation that is entirely intrastate in nature. Krauthammer complains about equal protection,
In states with same-sex marriage, Washington must give the same federal benefits to gay couples as to straight couples because to do otherwise is to discriminate against the gay couples. After all, they are equally married in their states. For Washington to discriminate against them is to deny them equal protection of the laws. Such discrimination is nothing more than irrational animus — and therefore constitutionally inadmissible.
Except the Supreme Court was commenting not on state laws for or against gay marriage, but on a federal law that targeted married gay couples and stripped them of a basic legal protection - to have their lawful marriages respected by other states. As the Court put it, "The Act’s demonstrated purpose is to ensure that if any State decides to recognize same-sex marriages, those unions will be treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law." There's nothing inherent in the Windsor decision that removes from a state the right to forbid same sex marriages within its borders - but that state will no longer have a federal statute that it can point to as a justification for disregarding the validity of gay marriages lawfully entered in other states.

In other words, Krauthammer's argument only holds if he believes that there are no better arguments for opposing gay marriage than those proposed by the defenders of DOMA. I'm not sure if I should take this as an implicit abandonment of his notion that gay marriage can be forbidden "for reasons of pedagogy", but it's safe to infer that he does not expect the Supreme Court to find a law premised upon his position to have a rational basis.

As Krauthammer sees it, the problem with this decision is that it paves the way for a future decision that will require all states to permit gay marriage.
Which is exactly where the majority’s [equal protection] rationale leads — nationalizing gay marriage, the way Roe nationalized abortion. This is certainly why David Boies, the lead attorney in the companion Proposition 8 case, was so jubilant when he came out onto the courthouse steps after the ruling. He understood immediately that once the court finds it unconstitutional to discriminate between gay and straight couples, nationalizing gay marriage is just one step away.
I know there's a "conventional wisdom" that holds that but for the opinion in Roe v. Wade we would have had a national debate that would have led toward reproductive freedom across the country, and that the reason we have a continued debate over abortion rights is because the Supreme Court cut that debate short. The only problem with that argument is, well, everything. Roe v. Wade is controversial because it's at the center of the abortion rights debate, but despite decades of controversy and opprobrium it was, is, and remains consistent with public opinion. To the extent that Roe foreclosed part of a debate, it was not the part that would lead toward the expansion of reproductive freedoms for women, it was the effort to restrict and outlaw abortion procedures. Scott Lemieux argues,
In general, the comparison of abortion politics before and after Roe v. Wade is most consistent with the expectations held by skeptics of judicial exceptionalism. Clearly, the legitimation hypothesis is not applicable in the abortion case. The court’s intervention certainly did not resolve the abortion issue in any meaningful sense, and the public certainly did not accept the court’s verdict as the final word on the issue. On the other hand, there is also little evidence that the court’s action would have produced more countermobilization than a similar policy enacted by Congress or state legislatures. The pro-life movement was a powerful force before Roe, and the decision did not demonstrably change either the tone of abortion discourse or the distribution of public opinion on the issue. There is no evidence, specifically or generally, that policy-making by the courts is thought of as inherently illegitimate by the public. It should be re-emphasized that these empirical findings do not mean that there was no countermobilization against Roe.... Certainly, abortion politics are more salient at the level of presidential politics in 2003 than they were in 1972 when George McGovern declined to take a position on the issue. The comparison of abortion politics before and after Roe, however, compels the strong inference that it is the nationalization of abortion politics represented by Roe, and not the legalization of [abortion], that is the key variable in explaining this shift. Hypothetically, had Congress passed (and been constitutionally able) to pass legislation with similar policy content, there can be little question that abortion would have become a more salient issue in presidential politics as well.
Lemieux's argument, as exemplified by his reference to McGovern, is also consistent with the fact that it was not until the Reagan era, and its effort to turn the religious right into a permanent Republican voting bloc, that being "pro-life" became a litmus test in the Republican Party.

Krauthammer is not demonstrating concern that this theoretical cut-off of debate predicated by decisions like Roe or Windsor will prevent the development of abortion rights and gay marriage as national legal rights. For example, if he's truly concerned about federalism, why didn't he blow a gasket about DOMA, a law that allowed state legislatures to avoid trying to create laws and policies consistent with their own constitutions and the U.S. Constitution. What meaningful debate did we have in the decade after the passage of DOMA?

Krauthammer's selective focus on court decisions that lead toward gay marriage, and his (at best) disinterest in state and federal legislation and ballot initiatives that attempt to impede or prevent movement toward gay marriage, suggests that his opposition is to the expansion of rights and not to the means by which those rights are expanded or protected. In this specific case it seems less that Krauthammer's actual objection is to the fact that the Supreme court intervened, and is more to the fact that he is unable to articulate a single reason why the Court's decision was incorrect.
1. A third argument might be, "If gay marriage is allowed, the result will be to weaken the traditional institution of marriage." The primary problem with that argument is that there's no evidence to support it, not even from jurisdictions that permit gay marriage. If you don't care whether your argument is supported by evidence, you could as easily argue that gay marriage will bring on a Martian invasion. Either way, in the absence of evidence you're blowing smoke.

2. Krauthammer claimed, "This line of argument makes gay activists furious" - no, Charles, this is what "furious" looks like; odds are that was people pointing and laughing.

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