Mississippi Judge Striking Down Marriage Ban Explains the Role of Courts

Among the many things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving are our fundamental constitutional rights and the principled federal judges who make sure those rights are vindicated, even when popular majorities disagree. Judge Carlton Reeves reminded us of that yesterday in his ruling striking down Mississippi's ban that prevented gays and lesbians from marrying.

Judge Reeves has written a thorough opinion that respectfully considers all the arguments put forth by opponents of marriage equality and carefully explains why the marriage ban, popular as it may be in Mississippi, violates both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. At 72 pages, it is well worth reading if you want to see our Constitution and our federal court system at their best.

Among the many highlights is Judge Reeves's response to those who say the issue of marriage equality should be resolved in the political branches rather than through the courts. This is the position recently taken by the Sixth Circuit in a highly flawed opinion written by Judge Jeffrey Sutton. Judge Reeves explains:

In upholding four states' same-sex marriage bans, [the Sixth Circuit] expressed optimism that voters would change their minds on same-sex marriage, and argued that the courts should give them that opportunity. As that court wrote, "from the claimants' perspective, we have an eleven-year record marked by nearly as many successes as defeats and a widely held assumption that the future holds more promise than the past—if the federal courts will allow that future to take hold." (emphasis added).

The undersigned sees the judicial role differently. The courts do not wait out the political process when constitutional rights are being violated, especially when the political process caused the constitutional violations in the first place. The framers did not set up Article III to yield to "the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority." The Federalist No. 10. By honoring its obligation conferred by Article III [of the Constitution], the court does not diminish the political process. Rather, the court holds fast to the fundamental belief that constitutional principles that safeguard liberty and guarantee equality are not subject to the ballot. [footnote and internal citations removed]

Judge Reeves also provides an important historical context and the role courts have played in fulfilling the promises of our Constitution:

Under the Fourteenth Amendment, a state may not "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. Although this text has not changed in nearly 150 years, our understanding of it has changed dramatically. Before turning to today's issue, then, it is worth considering some of those historical changes.

He then cites Supreme Court cases interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment to allow racial segregation, the blanket exclusion of women from practicing law, the criminalization of consensual sex between two men in their own home:

These are just a few examples. There are others. Even an abbreviated history shows that millions of Americans were once deemed ineligible for full Fourteenth Amendment protection. But we now take for granted that racial discrimination is wrong, that women cannot be excluded from the professions, and that gay and lesbian citizens are entitled to the same privacy in their sex lives that heterosexual citizens enjoy. We changed. These issues have faded into the background of everyday life.

The judiciary plays a unique role in this process. The above cases were not put to a vote of the American people. The votes had already been counted; the legislatures had already acted. Most voters thought nothing wrong with the status quo, unconstitutional as it may be.

This was always a risk of our representative democracy. James Madison wrote that "measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority." The Federalist No. 10. He and his colleagues "knew times can blind us to certain truths." Lawrence [v. Texas], 539 U.S. at 579. Mistakes would be made.

In their wisdom, though, they created a co-equal branch of government where aggrieved persons could try to show "that the laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress." Id. The judiciary has been charged with hearing these claims for more than two centuries. The will of the majority is usually affirmed. Every now and then, however, the majority has done an injustice to a person's rights, and the case must be resolved in his or her favor.

Judge Reeves, who was nominated to the bench by President Obama, explains well the importance of our nation's federal courts, while also demonstrating how important it is who serves on those courts.

PFAW Foundation

The Sixth Circuit's Flawed Marriage Ruling

A divided three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals this afternoon upheld the marriage bans of Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The majority opinion was written by Judge Jeffrey Sutton and joined by Deborah Cook, both put on the bench by George W. Bush. Clinton nominee Martha Craig Daughtrey dissented.

Among the many flaws in the majority's reasoning was the conclusion that Equal Protection violations are best resolved in the political sphere:

When the courts do not let the people resolve new social issues like this one, they perpetuate the idea that the heroes in these change events are judges and lawyers. Better in this instance, we think, to allow change through the customary political processes, in which the people, gay and straight alike, become the heroes of their own stories by meeting each other not as adversaries in a court system but as fellow citizens seeking to resolve a new social issue in a fair-minded way.

But this is a case where a discreet group, long a target of discrimination, found itself once again victimized by the majority acting through the democratic process. The Equal Protection Clause exists to protect vulnerable minorities from being victimized by hostile majorities using the "customary political process."

As the dissent states:

The author of the majority opinion has drafted what would make an engrossing TED Talk or, possibly, an introductory lecture in Political Philosophy. But as an appellate court decision, it wholly fails to grapple with the relevant constitutional question in this appeal: whether a state's constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage violates equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, the majority sets up a false premise—that the question before us is "who should decide?"—and leads us through a largely irrelevant discourse on democracy and federalism.

Another flaw was Sutton's dismissal of the possibility that there was animus in the wave of 2004 and 2006 ballot initiatives in which voters put bans into their state constitutions. He wrote that if the constitutional bans had been unusual, that might trigger suspicion of animus. But he found nothing unusual here:

Neither was the decision to place the definition of marriage in a State's constitution unusual, nor did it otherwise convey the kind of malice or unthinking prejudice the Constitution prohibits. Nineteen States did the same thing during that period [between 2004 and 2006]. And if there was one concern animating the initiatives, it was the fear that the courts would seize control over an issue that people of good faith care deeply about. [emphasis added, internal citation removed]

If that had been the motivation, the constitutional amendments would not have banned gays and lesbians from marrying, but would have simply said that the legislature had the authority to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples. That would have removed the court's authority in the matter. In fact, that is exactly how Hawaii amended its constitution in the 1990s (which is how it recently was able to adopt marriage equality without re-amending its constitution).

But the Hawaii model of inequality was not nearly extreme enough for the advocates of the bans devised and aggressively pushed in 2004 and 2006. They went far, far beyond that. They tied the legislatures' hands and ensured that gays and lesbians would forever be prevented from achieving marriage equality through democratic means.

The ordinary voters who voted for the bans surely had numerous motivations. But it seems like magical thinking on Judge Sutton's part to assume that there was no animus motivating the architects and enthusiastic proponents of such an extreme and permanent exclusion of a targeted minority.

The ones fighting most forcefully for the bans a decade ago were the same organizations and people who had spent years opposing every advance in LGBT equality, whether those advances came from the courts, from legislatures, in classrooms, or in popular culture. That history is vital to understanding their motivations ten years ago, just as it is vital in addressing their current claims that LGBT equality violates their religious liberty.

PFAW Foundation

Did a Nevada Federal Judge Let Personal Beliefs Affect His Marriage Ruling?

The federal district court judge whose pre-Windsor decision to uphold Nevada's marriage ban was recently reversed by the Ninth Circuit has now raised serious questions about whether his ruling was inappropriately influenced by his personal beliefs.

Last Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit ordered Judge Robert C. Jones to sign an order ordering Nevada to allow same-sex couples to marry. That's standard procedure when a case is reversed by an appellate court.

What isn't standard procedure is for the lower court judge to refuse.

BuzzFeed has reported that the day after that order was issued, Judge Jones recused himself without explanation and had the case reassigned. Yet he felt no qualm about presiding over the trial stage of the case – and issuing a ruling against the couples in 2012.

Judge Jones should explain why he recused himself as soon as the Ninth Circuit order came down, because it looks really bad. It looks like his personal feelings about gays and lesbians are so strong that he recused himself rather than comply with a direct order of the Ninth Circuit. And if that is the case, then why didn't he recuse himself from the case at the very start? It certainly taints the legitimacy of his initial ruling against gay and lesbian couples.

This raises serious questions about his fitness for the bench. If Judge Jones has some other reason for his recusal, he should state them and restore public confidence in his judgeship.

PFAW Foundation

Another Nail in the Coffin for Baker v. Nelson

A Supreme Court decision not to take an appeal of a lower court ruling is generally (and correctly) recognized as not being a ruling on the merits by the nation's highest court. But yesterday's determination not to hear several lower court decisions on marriage is arguably an exception. It can be seen as significantly weakening the argument made by anti-equality advocates that a decades-old Supreme Court one-sentence ruling in a case called Baker v. Nelson prevents lower courts from addressing the constitutionality of marriage bans.

Baker was a one-sentence Supreme Court ruling from 1972. A gay couple had challenged Minnesota's ban on same-sex couples getting married, and they had lost in the state supreme court. They appealed, and the Supreme Court responded with a one-sentence order, dismissing the case "for want of a substantial federal question." Although it was just one sentence and done without oral arguments or a written opinion, the summary dismissal was nonetheless a decision on the merits of the constitutional issue. As a result, most of the lower courts that have addressed the same issue four decades later have had to contend with this case.

Especially since the Windsor case striking down DOMA, most judges have agreed that while the Supreme Court itself has not overruled Baker, doctrinal developments since 1972 on Equal Protection generally – and on anti-gay discrimination in particular – have completely undermined it. Normally, the Justices tell lower courts that only the Supreme Court can overrule a Supreme Court precedent. Until that happens, lower courts should consider themselves bound by the precedent, even if the high court has undermined it over the years. But it has also made an exception if the precedent is, like Baker, a summary dismissal. In that case, courts do not have to follow it if subsequent doctrinal developments indicate it is no longer good law. That's what has allowed so many courts to get to the merits of the constitutional challenges to marriage bans.

Yesterday arguably represents another step in Baker's demise. Several landmark rulings over the past twenty years have recognized the fundamental equality, liberty, and dignity of lesbians and gays, making it hard to say that the Court still considers marriage equality lawsuits as not even presenting "a substantial federal question."

A more direct rebuke of Baker occurred when the Supreme Court issued an order accepting certiorari in the Proposition 8 case, which presented the exact same issue as the older case. Even though the Justices ultimately didn't address the merits, it is hard to claim with a straight face that the Supreme Court accepted cert and engaged in spirited oral arguments on an issue where there was no substantial federal question.

Yesterday's dismissal of the marriage cases represents another important stage in the long death of Baker. Three circuit courts concluded they could address the merits of the marriage equality arguments, Baker notwithstanding. Just by considering the issue, they rejected the holding of Baker. And certainly the conclusion they reached – that the United States Constitution prohibits states from banning same-sex couples from marrying – is a direct repudiation of the older case.

The Supreme Court takes it very seriously when a lower court simply disregards its precedents and says they are no longer good law. It's fine for a lower court to distinguish a case from an important previous precedent – that happens all the time. But to say the precedent can now be ignored would be a major challenge to the Supreme Court's authority … if the Justices thought for a minute that the old case was still good law.

But yesterday's decision sends a powerful message about Baker. A majority of Justices voted not to take the cases. If a majority considered Baker good law, we would not likely have seen an official Court action supported by a majority of the Justices choosing not to hear cases where lower courts declared themselves not bound by the precedent.

As additional circuit courts consider challenges to state marriage bans, they should not consider themselves bound by Baker v. Nelson.

PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court Action on Marriage Cases Is No Surprise

The Supreme Court's decision this morning to not hear appeals of any of the pending marriage equality appeals came as a surprise to some. But as PFAW Foundation's Supreme Court 2014-2015 Term Preview explained last month, most of the Justices may have strongly wanted to avoid taking these cases if at all possible:

Conservatives like Scalia and Thomas, who have in case after case shown their hostility to LGBT equality but may be unsure of how Kennedy would vote, might not be willing to risk a Supreme Court precedent that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. From their perspective, if they can't change the outcome around the country, why make it worse by adding a jurisprudential nightmare from the nation's highest court that would taint American law for decades to come?

For Justices likely to recognize the constitutional right to marriage equality, the calculation might be different. They, too, not knowing Kennedy's position, might not want to risk a 5-4 ruling in the "wrong" direction on a major constitutional and societal issue. But even if they could be certain of being in the majority, they might find advantages to having the Court stay out. Justice Ginsburg, for instance, has suggested publicly that Roe v. Wade went "too far, too fast," provoking a backlash that could otherwise have been avoided. If the legal question of marriage equality is being decided rightly in all the circuit courts, some Justices might rather leave well enough alone. In fact, Justice Ginsburg told a group of law students in mid-September that without a circuit split, she saw "no urgency" for the Court to take up the issue now, although she added that she expects the Court to take it up "sooner or later."

It looks like the "sooner or later" will be when – or if – a circuit court ever rules against same-sex couples seeking to vindicate their right to marry.

The Term Preview also discussed some of the specific legal issues that an eventual Supreme Court ruling could address, beyond the black-or-white question of whether same-sex couples can marry. For now, absent a circuit court ruling upholding a marriage ban and a subsequent decision by the Supreme Court to hear the appeal, these questions will remain unresolved at the national level. But they are important questions:

Exactly which constitutional right do the bans violate? While numerous courts have ruled in favor of same-sex couples, they have been anything but unanimous in their reasoning: Some have suggested that the bans violate the Due Process Clause, because the longstanding, fundamental right to marry includes the right to marry someone of the same sex. Other judges indicate that the bans violate the Equal Protection Clause because they deny the right to marry based on the sex of the people seeking to get married. Still others suggest that the bans violate the Equal Protection Clause because they discriminate against gays and lesbians. While the different legal rationales would all have the same immediate result (marriage equality), they could create very different legal precedents and have very different impacts down the line as lower courts consider other types of discrimination, whether aimed at gays and lesbians, at transgender people, or at others.

A Supreme Court ruling might decide what level of scrutiny the Equal Protection Clause requires for laws that discriminate against gay people, an issue not squarely faced in previous cases. Most government classifications are subject to – and easily pass – "rational basis" scrutiny by the courts: The law is constitutional as long as it's rationally related to some legitimate government interest. (The Court has said that animus against gays and lesbians is not a legitimate purpose, which in the past has let it bypass the question as to whether anti-gay laws warrant more scrutiny from the courts.)

But a few types of laws trigger heightened Equal Protection scrutiny. Sex-based classifications are subject to intermediate scrutiny: They must be substantially related to an important government interest. Race-based classifications are generally subject to strict scrutiny, the highest level: They must be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest. If the Court rules that laws discriminating against lesbians and gays warrant some level of heightened scrutiny, that would have an enormous impact nationwide on all kinds of laws that discriminate against lesbians and gays, not just marriage bans.

The Court's discussion of this issue could also shed light on whether eliminating private discrimination against LGBT people is (in the Court's eyes) a compelling government interest. This could have an enormous impact as courts consider right wing challenges to anti-discrimination laws on the basis of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act or state-law analogs.

This last point is particularly important, given efforts by the far right to reframe anti-discrimination and women's health laws as attacks on religious liberty. As affiliate People For the American Way Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery wrote earlier today on Right Wing Watch:

[R]edefining "religious liberty" has become the central culture war issue and the primary legal and public relations strategy chosen by conservative evangelicals and their allies in the Catholic hierarchy to resist the advance of LGBT equality and restrict women's access to reproductive care.

This right-wing reframing effort might have been hurt by a strong Supreme Court ruling emphasizing the critical importance of ending discrimination against lesbians and gays.

PFAW Foundation

Let Freedom (and Wedding Bells) Ring

With the far-right Roberts Court, it's usually good news when they choose not to address a case, and that's especially so this morning: The Court announced it will not be hearing the appeals of any of the pending marriage cases.

That means the stays of the Fourth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits' pro-equality rulings should be lifted and marriages should soon be allowed in Utah and Oklahoma (10th Circuit), Indiana and Wisconsin (7th Circuit), and Virginia (4th Circuit).

And in the other non-equality states in those three circuits, loving couples can now go to court and cite their circuit's ruling as binding precedent guaranteeing their right to marry. And they should win: Each circuit decision binds district courts and other three-judge appellate panels in the circuit. The only way to avoid the application of three-judge panel’s decision to other states in the circuit would be for there to be a contrary ruling by a panel - called an en banc panel - made up of all of the active appellate judges in that circuit.

Congratulations to the loving couples in those states for whom the Constitution's promise of liberty and equality will no longer be ideals withheld from them. This is a textbook case of the federal courts doing exactly what they were set up to do: vindicating those whose basic legal rights have been violated.

PFAW Foundation

The Right Enemies: A Look Back at Right Wing Attacks on Eric Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder, who today announced his plans to resign, has been a leader in addressing systems of racial discrimination and protecting the fundamental rights of every American to be treated equally under the law and participate in our democracy.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the Right loves to hate him.

In February of this year, the American Family Association demanded Holder’s impeachment after he had the audacity to treat married same-sex couples like married opposite-sex couples with regard to a host of legal rights and recognitions. Shortly after, both Faith and Freedom Coalition head Ralph Reed and Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp echoed the call for Holder’s impeachment because of his support for marriage equality. Televangelist Pat Robertson also joined the impeachment parade, alleging that under Holder, “sodomy” was being “elevated above the rights of religious believers.”

Holder’s commitment to redressing racial injustice was no more warmly received by the Right than his work in support of LGBT equality. After Holder spoke out against voter ID laws, which disproportionately harm people of color, Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused him of “purposefully” “incit[ing] racial tension.” Gun Owners of America director Larry Pratt argued that Holder’s open discussion of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system means that he is the real “racist,” asserting last year that Holder wants to “intimidate the rest of the country so that we don’t think about defending ourselves” against “attacks by black mobs on white individuals.” Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association went so far as to say that Holder would never “prosecute someone if the victim is white.” And after Holder visited Ferguson, Missouri last month, David Horowitz outrageously commented that the attorney general was leading a black “lynch mob.”

And those are just a handful of the attacks the Right has leveled against Holder for his work protecting equality under the law.

The fact that the far Right has reacted with so much vitriol to the attorney general’s leadership is a sign not only of how uninterested they are in the civil rights that the Justice Department is meant to protect, but also of how effective Holder’s work has been. The next attorney general should share Holder’s deep commitment to protecting the rights of all Americans – and, by extension, make all the “right” enemies among those hoping to turn back the clock on civil liberties.

PFAW

PFAW & Allies Send Open Letter to RNC Chair: “Where Does the GOP Stand on Gay Bashing?”

In anticipation of this weekend’s annual Values Voter Summit, a multi-day event where GOP elected officials and presidential hopefuls rub elbows with Religious Right leaders, People For the American Way President Michael Keegan joined the leaders of the Southern Poverty Law Center and five other civil rights and LGBT organizations in an open letter calling on Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus to ask members of his party to disassociate themselves from the summit.

The letter, printed in the Washington Post and The Hill this morning, highlights the repeated and vicious demonization of LGBT people by the groups responsible for the summit, including its host, the Family Research Council:

Its president, Tony Perkins, has repeatedly claimed that pedophilia is a “homosexual problem.” He has called the “It Gets Better” campaign — designed to give LGBT students hope for a better tomorrow — “disgusting” and a “concerted effort” to “recruit” children into the gay “lifestyle.”

… Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a summit sponsor, has said the U.S. needs to “be more like Russia,” which enacted a law criminalizing the distribution of LGBT “propaganda.” He also has said, “Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine, and six million dead Jews.”

By participating in the summit, Republican Party leaders risk legitimizing this kind of virulent extremism. Given that reality, the letter asks a simple question: where does the GOP stand on gay bashing? Reince Priebus himself has said, “People in this country, no matter straight or gay, deserve dignity and respect.” But will he walk the talk and, as the letter asks, “tell the members of your party to shun groups that demean other people and deny them dignity?”

You can read the full letter here.
 

PFAW

7th Circuit Says Arguments Against Marriage Equality "Cannot Be Taken Seriously"

Today's unanimous panel ruling by the Seventh Circuit striking down Wisconsin and Indiana's marriage bans is a well-written, carefully reasoned take-down of some of the ludicrous arguments that equality opponents have been making to defend their policy of discrimination. It was written by Richard Posner, a noted conservative put on the bench by Ronald Reagan, and joined by judges nominated by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Ruling on the basis of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the court summarizes its opinion nicely:

Our pair of cases is rich in detail but ultimately straightforward to decide. The challenged laws discriminate against a minority defined by an immutable characteristic, and the only rationale that the states put forth with any conviction—that same-sex couples and their children don't need marriage because same-sex couples can't produce children, intended or unintended—is so full of holes that it cannot be taken seriously.

Judge Posner writes:

Because homosexuality is not a voluntary condition and homosexuals are among the most stigmatized, misunderstood, and discriminated-against minorities in the history of the world, the disparagement of their sexual orientation, implicit in the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples, is a source of continuing pain to the homosexual community.

He carefully considers the argument put forward by the states that marriage is restricted to one man and one woman to benefit children. Among the many ways this argument fails to hold water:

But then how to explain Indiana's decision to carve an exception to its prohibition against marriage of close relatives for first cousins 65 or older—a population guaranteed to be infertile because women can't conceive at that age? [Wisconsin also bans first cousins from marrying unless the woman is over 55 or where the couple presents a doctor's affidavit saying one of them is permanently infertile.] If the state's only interest in allowing marriage is to protect children, why has it gone out of its way to permit marriage of first cousins only after they are provably infertile? ... Elderly first cousins are permitted to marry because they can't produce children; homosexuals are forbidden to marry because they can't produce children. The state's argument that a marriage of first cousins who are past child-bearing age provides a "model [of] family life for younger, potentially procreative men and women" is impossible to take seriously.

With regard to the commonly heard refrain, echoed by attorneys for Indiana and Wisconsin, that courts should respect democratically-enacted bans on marriage by same-sex couples, Judge Posner points out what should be obvious to anyone who claims fealty to the United States Constitution:

Minorities trampled on by the democratic process have recourse to the courts; the recourse is called constitutional law.

Courts exist to enforce the Constitution against those who would subvert it. And that drives the right crazy.

PFAW Foundation

Louisiana's Marriage Ban Is Upheld By Judge Citing "Lifestyle Choices"

Judge Martin Feldman, nominated to the Eastern District of Louisiana thirty years ago by President Reagan, today upheld that state's marriage ban against same-sex couples. But his opinion concluding that the ban is constitutional is hardly a model of rigorous and dispassionate legal or factual analysis.

Early in the opinion, he makes clear that he simply doesn't see gay and lesbian couples as anything at all like opposite-sex couples:

This national same-sex marriage struggle animates a clash between convictions regarding the value of state decisions reached by way of the democratic process as contrasted with personal, genuine, and sincere lifestyle choices recognition. (emphasis added)

This fundamental misunderstanding – reducing the love and commitment shared by lesbian and gay couples to nothing more than a simple "lifestyle choice" – colors his entire approach to the case.

In his Equal Protection analysis, he rules that classifications based on sexual orientation are subject only to the lowest-level, "rational basis" scrutiny. He gives two reasons. First, he cites higher court cases like Windsor that have avoided squarely answering that question, "despite opportunities to do so." Second, applying heightened scrutiny would "demean the democratic process." That's pretty circular reasoning, considering that heightened scrutiny exists in recognition that even democratically-enacted laws can violate a vulnerable group's Equal Protection rights.

His conclusion that the ban isn't sex discrimination is similarly flawed. Under the bans, your sex determines whether you can marry a particular person, playing the same role that race did in Loving v. Virginia. In that case, the Supreme Court rejected Virginia's argument that laws prohibiting interracial marriage did not trigger Equal Protection concerns because they applied to blacks and whites alike. Once the Court recognized that the law treated people differently based on their race, it followed standard Equal Protection analysis, striking down the law under the strict scrutiny that applies to racial discrimination. Other courts have recognized that bans against same-sex couples getting married similarly trigger Equal Protection concerns. In disagreeing with those courts, Judge Feldman rewrites Loving (and the Fourteenth Amendment):

Heightened scrutiny was warranted in Loving because the Fourteenth Amendment expressly condemns racial discrimination as a constitutional evil … [N]o analogy can defeat the plain reality that Louisiana's laws apply evenhandedly to both genders--whether between two men or two women. Same-sex marriage is not recognized in Louisiana and is reasonably anchored to the democratic process. The Court is therefore satisfied that rational basis applies.

First off, the Fourteenth Amendment doesn't "expressly condemn racial discrimination" or even specifically mention race. Its ringing call for liberty and equality applies to "any person." Sorry, Judge Feldman, but that includes lesbians and gays.

Secondly, Feldman flips Loving on its head. Loving recognized that the state's marriage laws were subject to Equal Protection scrutiny despite, to use Feldman's formulation in this case, "the plain reality that [Virginia's] laws appl[ied] evenhandedly to both [races]." The Supreme Court didn't see through the ruse of "it applies to everyone" because of strict scrutiny; it used strict scrutiny because it saw through the ruse of "it applies to everyone."

Although other courts have struck down marriage bans under rational basis, Feldman upholds Louisiana's ban as related to the state's goals of linking children to their birth parents and managing social change through democratic consensus. He suggests that it could be struck down only if motivated solely by animus, which he rejects (although other courts have struck down the law under rational basis without a finding of animus). (The Supreme Court has held that animus against gays and lesbians is not a legitimate justification for a law.)

As for the Due Process claim, he sees the constitutional right at issue not as marriage, but as "same sex marriage." This is not surprising, since he doesn't see the couples before him as anything except people exercising and seeking approval of an alternative "lifestyle choice." And since there has not been a longstanding recognition of the right to "same sex marriage," he uses rational basis for the Due Process claim, and the couples before him lose again.

Toward the end of the opinion, Judge Feldman channels his inner Scalia, condemning judges who, like "philosopher kings," have ruled in favor of same-sex couples. He writes:

Perhaps in a new established point of view, marriage will be reduced to contract law, and, by contract, anyone will be able to claim marriage. … For example, must the states permit or recognize a marriage between an aunt and niece? Aunt and nephew? Brother/brother? Father and child?

That canard is so easily rejected. Can Judge Feldman really not come up with a single reason to ban child marriages or incestuous marriages that would not apply to marriages between unrelated adults of the same sex? Not one? The reasons for not letting a father marry his child really have nothing to do with the fact that one of the parties is a child, and that the other party is their father?

Judge Feldman was put in the bench back in 1983 by President Reagan. Our country was a much darker place for lesbians and gays then, and a ruling such as his would not have been surprising thirty years ago. But given the enormous changes in constitutional law that we have seen since then, Feldman's ruling is clearly a throwback to an earlier and less equal time.

PFAW Foundation