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From the Archives: Obama’s announcement prompts question, Is gay marriage a ‘new right’?

Obama’s announcement prompts question, Is gay marriage a ‘new right’?
May 9, 2012 4:02 PM MST

With President Barack Obama’s surprise announcement today that he supports the rights of gay and lesbian couples to legally wed, political pundits are debating whether this was a calculated move designed to help the president’s re-election bid, or whether it will help presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, instead.

Obama’s statement came on the heels of North Carolina voters decisively adding a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage and civil unions in that state. The president said, perhaps with that news in mind, that he thinks legalizing gay marriage should be decided on a state-by-state basis, without intervention from the federal government – or, presumably, through judicial decisions by the courts.

Some opponents of same-sex marriage assert that the Founders, in drawing up the Constitution, did not intend its protections to include gay individuals who wish to marry each other.

‘Life, liberty, or property’

Bert Ernie gay marriage archives Barack Obama 2012
Since the Fourteenth Amendment is usually cited by those who believe the Constitution does, in fact, protect a right to same-sex marriage (“nor shall any State 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”), opponents of gay marriage argue that the post-Civil War amendments were intended only to extend constitutional protections on the basis of race and that their authors would not have also extended those protections on the basis of sexual orientation.

To be fair, there are also people who favor extending equal marriage rights to all citizens but who argue that this should be done legislatively, because, they say, courts should not be creating new rights not present in the language of the Constitution or the minds of its authors.

Since the “new rights” meme is so common, it may be useful to consult a different analogy (unrelated to race) to reveal why this objection is logically flawed.

The argument of the opponents of same-sex marriage is that it is an entirely new concept and therefore courts should not extend the right of marriage to gay people.

‘Not a new concept’
Yet “marriage” is not a new concept, and it may be engaged in legally by most, but not all, people who desire opposite-sex marriages.

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In every state except Mississippi and Nebraska, any adult from the age of 18 may wed another person without parental permission. (In Mississippi, the legal age to freely marry is 21; in Nebraska, it is 19.) In many of the states, the marriageable age was once 21 but has been changed to 18.

In all these states, the legal age of majority is 18 – people who have reached that age can enter into contracts, buy and sell goods and services, own a home, join the military, pay taxes, vote in elections and – in some cases – serve in elective public office, including the state legislature.

If someone in Mississippi sued for the right to marry at the age of 18 or 19, it would not be unreasonable for a court to rule that the current prohibition on marriage there before the age of 21 is unconstitutional, because it deprives that person of a liberty (to marry) guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Nobody would argue that that court was creating a “new,” previously non-existent right. It would simply be expanding the pool of otherwise eligible adult citizens who can enjoy that right.

That is because, for virtually every other person in the country older than 18 years of age, marriage is legal and available to them.

‘Extending a right’
The point is that judges who recognize the right of gay couples to marry are not creating a “new right.” Rather, they are extending a right that is already recognized for all other adults.

“Marriage” is legal for all adults, except those who are gay or lesbian. To recognize that being gay or lesbian is no impediment to marriage is no more creating a “new right” than to say that 18-year-old adult citizens of Mississippi should be able to marry today rather than wait three years.

There may be compelling arguments, on policy grounds, to continue to prohibit gay marriage. Seven states, the District of Columbia, Canada, several European countries, and South Africa (among other governments) have rejected those arguments, if they exist.

But one argument that does not stand up to scrutiny is that same-sex marriage is a “judge-created right.” With President Obama’s return to a position he first held in 1996, the political debate over the rights of gay citizens to marry takes a new direction.

Publisher's note: This article is part of a series to mark June as Gay Pride Month. It was originally published on on May 9, 2012. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016.  I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

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