Is the Supreme Court Ruling on Gay "Marriage" a Matter of Semantics?

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 "marriages".

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 to fully understand all of the arguments, analysis and conclusions.)