The recent California Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriages has garnered
a huge amount of public attention throughout the country. However, the
ruling may not be as revolutionary as the general public believes, nor
as progressive as the media would have you believe.
Long before the Court's ruling, California already had in place a series
of laws granting same-sex couples virtually all of the legal rights and
responsibilities afforded to married couples (the differences are few
and mostly procedural). The culmination of these laws comes from the California
Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2003 which in Family
Code _297.5 states that: "Registered domestic partners shall have
the same rights, protections, and benefits, and shall be subject to the
same responsibilities, obligations, and duties under law . . . as are
granted to and imposed upon spouses." The Courts have already acknowledged
that the chief goal of the Act is to "equalize the status of registered
domestic partners and married couples." (Koebke v. Bernardo (2005)
26 Cal.4th 824, 839).
Nevertheless, under current California laws and procedures, same-sex unions
were called "domestic partnerships", while opposite-sex unions
were called "marriages". Acknowledging that same-sex "domestic
partners" already have the rights and responsibilities of a "married"
couple, the Supreme Court limited the issue addressed to "whether
the difference in official names of the relationships violates the Constitution."
The California Court explained that in this state, the "right to marry"
is a fundamental right whose protection is guaranteed to all persons.
Under principles of Constitutional law, in order for two groups to be
treated differently with regard to a fundamental right, there must be
a "compelling state interest" and the deferential treatment
must be "necessary" to serve that compelling interest.
The Plaintiffs (several same-sex couples) argued that the difference in
official names violates a same-sex couple's fundamental rights to
"marry", right of privacy and the freedom to pursue consensual
familial relationships. The Defendants (the Governor, Attorney General
and The Proposition 22 Legal Defense Fund) argued that the fundamental
right to "marry" is not the equivalent of a right to same-sex
"marriage" and that the state has a "compelling interest"
in retaining the traditional and well-established definition of a "marriage".
Ultimately, and after much discussion, the Court concluded that California's
interest in calling one union a "marriage" while calling the
other a "domestic partnership" is not a "compelling state
interest" especially given the fact California already gives same-sex
couples virtually all rights afforded to opposite-sex married couples
. The court further concluded that tradition alone is not a "sufficient
justification for perpetuating, without examination, the restriction or
denial of a fundamental Constitutional right" and that "fundamental
rights, once recognized, cannot be denied to particular groups on the
ground that these groups have historically been denied those rights."
Therefore, all unions whether opposite-sex or same-sex should be called
It should be noted that this California decision has no impact on Federal
law, which defines marriage solely as "the union of a man and a woman"
and does not recognize any type of "domestic partnership" whatsoever.
This means that federal benefits granted to opposite-sex married partners
(including Social Security, Medicare, federal housing, food stamps, federal
military and veterans' programs, federal employment programs and filing
status for federal income tax purposes) will continue to be unavailable
to California's same-sex married couples.
(Of course, this is a brief discussion of the very lengthy opinion. You
are encouraged to read the entire opinion at www.courtinfo.ca.gov to fully
understand all of the arguments, analysis and conclusions.)