In its historic June 26 ruling that state governments cannot ban same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court relied heavily for its reasoning on concepts about individual liberty and equality before the law. As long as government is in the business of granting benefits and protections for those who marry, the majority decided, it must do the same for all and uphold this basic freedom. To exclude gays or lesbians from the official act of recognizing a marital union would be to violate liberty and equality, the twin pillars of the Constitution.
In writing the controlling opinion for the 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy went a step further. He stated the Constitution also grants dignity to same-sex couples in their right to marry under the law. By excluding them from legal marriage, governments inflict “dignitary wounds.” They demean and stigmatize such couples and “disparage their choices and diminish their personhood.”
Justice Kennedy is correct that no one should be demeaned, stigmatized, disparaged, or diminished. The decision takes a legal leap, however, in assuming government can be a source for a person’s dignity. The choice of two people to love and commit to each other has an integrity all its own, outside of government. This union of hearts alone brings dignity.
Kennedy does acknowledge that society, through legal marriage, merely provides “symbolic recognition and material benefits.” Still, a better understanding of dignity is now important, not to oppose or support this ruling, but rather to help find social healing in the months and years ahead.
Those who uphold traditional marriage may now be legally challenged if they practice their beliefs in the public sphere, such as denying a wedding service to a gay couple. They, too, might demand court protection of their “dignity.” Gays and lesbians who bring such challenges would be wise to argue only on the basic rights of liberty and equality. After all, those are the core of this ruling and the basis for further laws or rulings about same-sex couples.
In 2012, after President Obama “evolved” in his opinion on gay marriage, he gave this view to ABC News about those who uphold traditional marriage: “[It’s] important to recognize that folks who feel very strongly that marriage should be defined narrowly as between a man and a woman, many of them are not coming at it from a mean-spirited perspective. They’re coming at it because they care about families.” Likewise, in their dissent against the ruling, the minority justices warned against the majority’s view about the alleged “demeaning” of same-sex couples.
After this ruling, the US must avoid political or legal duels over claims to dignitary harm. The way forward would be more harmonious if each side recognized the innate dignity of the other. Dignity, like marriage, existed long before humans formed governments. This recognition will move the debate out of a zero-sum proposition and help manage the nuances of any conflict between religious liberty and marriage equality.
Other ways can be found to avoid clashes. In 2006, for example, the Catholic Charities USA agencies began to shut down their adoption services to avoid placing babies with same-sex couples, for religious reasons. But the charities quickly found a grander purpose. They launched an ambitious project to cut poverty in half by the year 2020. Their dignity of purpose was not diminished but rather found new expression.
The best course would be to understand that dignity is already baked into every individual, even endowed by the Creator, as are basic rights. It is the basis for relationships like marriage and in being fellow citizens. It is not a source for division.