Today (January 16, 2015) the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to four cases appealed from the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on the issue of same-sex marriage. The Court’s decision to hear the cases addresses the recent split between the federal circuits on the issue. At issue are the following: (1) whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to license marriage between two people of the same sex, and (2) whether states must recognize marriages between same-sex couples performed in other states.
Background: DOMA and the Sixth Circuit split
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage of Act (DOMA), which had restricted certain federal benefits to heterosexual unions. The Court held that Section 3 of DOMA was an unconstitutional violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. As reported last month in the Wagenmaker & Oberly blog, following the Supreme Court’s decision, many federal district courts have rapidly overturned state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage as being invalid under the U.S. Constitution’s due process and equal protection protections. To date, the Fourth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have decided cases that have effectively legitimized same-sex marriage in the 30 states within those circuits.
Bucking that trend, in November 2014 the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed decisions of four federal district courts that struck down such state laws. See DeBoer v. Snyder, No. 14-1341, 2014 WL 5748990. In validating state laws proscribing same-sex marriage, the Sixth Circuit decision has created a split among the federal courts. That split concerns the key question of states’ rights to be self-determining with respect to this crucial question on marriage. According to the two-judge majority in DeBoer, the Fourteenth Amendment does not prohibit a state from defining the nature of marriage. In particular, the Sixth Circuit court noted that, in each of the states in question, laws proscribing same-sex marriage had been established through extensive legislative and voter activity. The Court reasoned that the strength of each state’s views on the same-sex marriage issue deserved great deference. As expected, the Sixth Circuit cases were appealed to the Supreme Court.
The question before the court: states’ rights and the Fourteenth Amendment
In the Supreme Court’s granting of cert, the Court consolidated all four cases from the Sixth Circuit. The Court is limiting its consideration to the two legal issues listed in the above opening paragraph. Initial briefs are expected to be filed by February 27, 2015, with reply briefs to be filed by April 17, 2015. It is expected that the Court will also likely receive numerous amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs in support of each side. A final decision should be forthcoming by the end of June, before the Court recesses for the summer.
Commentators are already noting the historic significance of this case, whatever its outcome. The result of the Court’s deliberations may have special importance for religious nonprofits. Many worshipping bodies and faith-based organizations have strong doctrinal statements and belief systems concerning the nature of marriage, sexual orientation, and same-sex marriage. The First Amendment generally protects churches, mosques, and other worshipping groups with regard to their beliefs and practices pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity issues. On the other hand, non-church religious organizations and faith-based businesses have more limited protections. Whatever the Supreme Court’s decision, it is likely to significantly impact such groups’ operations and activities. Our law firm will continue to monitor the progress of briefs related to the case, and provide updates as we have them.