Some people ask how it could be constitutional to ban gay marriage when its clearly discriminatory. The answer is that whether a law is constitutional or not doesn't depend on whether or not it discriminates. Instead, it's all about whether the government has a good enough reason for making the law.

For example, often times courts say that affirmative action laws (such as public school policies) are constitutional even though they discriminate. In those cases, courts say that the government has a good enough reason (correcting effects of past discrimination) to discriminate. Certainly, affirmative action negatively affects those races not benefited by the rules, but the laws are nevertheless legal.

That's why in the California Proposition 8 trial, the fight isn't about whether the the law discriminates or even whether the law hurts gay couples wanting to get married. Instead, it's about whether California has a good enough reason to have the law.

What does “good enough” mean?

It depends. There's 3 versions of “good enough” that the district court can use. Which of these the court should use is one of the things that the lawyers argue about. Auto-straddle, a blog covering lesbian legal issues, explains:

With strict scrutiny, Prop 8 lawyers have to demonstrate that the law is narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental purpose.

With intermediate scrutiny, Prop 8 lawyers have to demonstrate that the law is substantially related to an important governmental purpose.

With just rational basis, [Prop 8 lawyers have] to demonstrate that the law is rationally related to any legitimate governmental purpose.

Strict scrutiny is the hardest one to show, while rational basis is the easiest.

What's a governmental purpose?

Let's take the argument that the reason to ban gay marriage is to promote families that can naturally procreate. If the court chooses the “strict scrutiny” version of “good enough,” then lawyers supporting the gay marriage ban would need to show two things:

  1. Proposition 8 does very little else except promote naturally procreating families and also actually does promote these kind of families (narrowly tailored)
  2. Promoting naturally procreating families is a compelling governmental purpose.

But if the court chooses the “rational basis” version, then the side against gay marriage only needs to show the following:

  1. Proposition 8 is rationally related to promoting naturally procreating families. So, it wouldn't have to actually be effective and it could have lots of side effects. They'd just need to make some rational argument that it's related.
  2. Promoting naturally procreating families is a legitimate governmental purpose. Note the difference here: the purpose only has to be legitimate–it doesn't have to be a particularly good purpose, and especially not a compelling one.

Putting It All Together

First the court needs to decide which version of “good enough” to use. Once it does, it'll look at each reason for having the gay marriage ban and determine whether it meets that definition of “good enough.”

[Cross-posted at the Gay Couples Law Blog. Published by Gideon Alper, who also publishes the Atlanta Divorce Law Blog, it discusses same sex family law, estate planning, and taxes.

Gideon Alper

Gideon Alper