The Constitutional Dimensions of the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

  • July 09, 2009

On May 21, 2009, the California Supreme Court closed another chapter in the state's long-running fight over same-sex marriage when it upheld a 2008 voter-approved ballot initiative, known as Proposition 8, which amended the California state constitution to ban gay marriage. A month earlier, on April 27, 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court had unanimously ruled that a state law defining marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman violated the Iowa Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. (See A Contentious Debate: Same-Sex Marriage in the U.S.)

As the California and Iowa rulings suggest, while the gay marriage controversy has many elements, including disagreements over religious and social norms, much of the debate is a legal one. Indeed, it was a 2003 Massachusetts high court decision legalizing same-sex marriage that elevated the issue onto the national stage, where it has remained ever since. Since 2003, courts in a number of states have handed victories to both opponents and supporters of gay marriage.

So far, court cases around the country have been based on state, rather than federal, constitutional provisions and thus have not been subject to review by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, a suit alleging that California's Proposition 8 violates the U.S. Constitution was recently filed in a federal district court, giving the nation's high court a potential opportunity to determine whether the U.S Constitution guarantees the right of gay and lesbian couples to wed. If the court takes such a case, its decision will likely stem, at least in part, from its prior rulings on privacy and related issues.

Read the full report The Constitutional Dimensions of the Same-Sex Marriage Debate on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's Web site.