The gay marriage movement today suffered back-to-back defeats in two top state courts. The more important decision occurred in New York, where the state's highest judicial body, the Court of Appeals, ruled that the state constitution does not guarantee the right of gay people to marry. Meanwhile, Georgia's Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that had invalidated a 2004 voter-approved ban on same sex unions on the grounds that the referendum had violated state voting laws.
While the issue of gay marriage transcends religion, religious groups have played major roles on both sides of the debate. The Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christian groups have played a leading role in public opposition to gay marriage, while other denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, have wrestled with whether to ordain gay clergy and perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.
The Pew Forum provides answers to the following questions.
David Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
What did the New York court say in its decision?
The court ruled 4-2 that prohibiting same-sex marriage does not violate the state constitution's guarantees of equal protection under the law and due process. The court's ruling is based on its determination that there are a number of rational reasons why the New York State legislature might want to prohibit gay marriage, such as promoting stable heterosexual marriage for the welfare of children. Writing for the majority, Judge Robert Smith argued that the court was not persuaded "that this long-accepted restriction [on gay marriage] is a wholly irrational one, based solely on ignorance and prejudice against homosexuals."
In addition, Smith contrasted prohibitions of gay marriage with earlier state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Laws against interracial unions were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, precisely because there was no rational basis for them. Interracial marriage prohibitions were rooted entirely in discrimination and prejudice, Smith wrote, something that cannot be said about gay marriage prohibitions.
While the decision was a victory for opponents of gay marriage and a defeat for gay rights activists, it did not in any way prohibit the New York legislature from recognizing gay marriage at a future date. The decision gives the state legislature free rein to expand the definition of marriage if it so chooses.
What did the Georgia court rule?
The Georgia decision did not address fundamental constitutional questions. Instead, the court was asked to decide whether a 2004 ballot initiative amending the Georgia constitution to ban gay marriage had violated a state law mandating that each initiative deal with only a "single subject." Gay marriage supporters had argued that the language offered to voters - which defines marriage as being the union of a man and woman and prohibits same-sex couples from receiving the benefits of marriage - could be interpreted to ban civil unions as well as gay marriage. But the court dismissed this argument, determining that voters understood that they were voting on an initiative that concerned gay marriage. The ballot measure was approved by 76% of the state's voters.
Are these decisions a surprise?
Many analysts who follow this issue thought that the New York Court of Appeals would at least mandate civil unions, if not marriage, for homosexual couples. New York's high court is known to be both independent and socially liberal. For instance, in recent decades, the court has struck down the state's anti-sodomy law as well as its death penalty statute. In addition, many legal scholars thought that the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision that anti-sodomy laws are unconstitutional would give the New York court a jurisprudential foundation to mandate gay marriage, or at least civil unions.
The Georgia ruling is less surprising, simply because the state and its courts are much more conservative. Also, the decision in Georgia was not ultimately about gay marriage, but concerned state voting laws.
What is the political impact of these decisions?
Ironically, even though the rulings give victories to opponents of same-sex unions, they may hurt already slim changes for passage of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage. Amendment supporters argue that changing the U.S. Constitution is necessary to stop activist judges, especially at the state level, from mandating gay marriage. A key argument against such an amendment is that the issue is best left to the states to resolve.
When a court in a liberal "blue state" like New York refuses to recognize a constitutional right to gay marriage, it makes it harder to argue that judges are going to change the definition of marriage. Indeed, only in Massachusetts has a state's high court mandated same-sex unions.
Could anything change that political dynamic?
Yes. Two state high courts, in New Jersey and Washington, are set to rule on this question in the near future. If either state joins Massachusetts in recognizing gay marriage, calls for a constitutional amendment will almost certainly grow louder.
Where do the American people stand on this issue?
According to a March 2006 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a bare majority of Americans (51%) oppose legalizing gay marriage. This number is significantly lower than the 63% who reported opposing gay marriage in a February 2004 Pew poll. Opposition to gay marriage spiked following the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision in November 2003 and remained high throughout the 2004 election season. Lately, opposition to gay marriage has fallen across the board, with substantial declines even among Republicans.
Stateline.org Backgrounder: Same-Sex Marriage
N.Y. Court Rejects Challenge to Gay Marriage Ban (NY Times)
Ga. Gay Marriage Ban Upheld (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Issue Page: Religion & Gay Marriage
Read the N.Y. decision
Read the Ga. decision