When judges have ruled that gays and lesbians must be allowed, constitutionally, to marry, they have done so on the premise that this would not be the creation of a new right – that is, not a new-found right special to same-sex couples, but a right to join in equally in the existing, traditional right to marry. Those judges have accepted the argument of the same-sex couples that they want nothing more than equal access to the legal opportunity to wed. That, in essence, is the marriage equality argument.
When judges have resisted (most often, these days, in dissenting opinions) the idea that same-sex couples’ choice to marry must be constitutionally protected, they have argued that this would be creating a new and special right, and they have noted that the Supreme Court has actively discouraged the crafting of new rights by constitutional fiat, rather than by constitutional amendment or by the acts of legislatures. That, in essence, is the argument against minting a new right.
Both sides in this exchange can enlist some Supreme Court decisions on their side. After all, the Supreme Court has been working on its interpretation of just what marriage rights encompass for decades – indeed,at least since the late 19th Century. Little by little, the Justices have moved steadily toward the conclusion that, constitutionally speaking, the right to marry is fundamental to the civic order, a right of the highest constitutional rank.
But yet to be decided, at least for gays and lesbians, is this: just what is the nature of that fundamental right? Is it a sweeping right to choose one’s life mate without interference by government? Or is it a right that is fundamental only because it has deep roots in the traditional definition of one-man, one-woman marriage?