Californian Ban on Same-Sex Marriage Declared Unconstitutional

London, 21 February 2012 

On 7 February 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit delivered its judgment in Perry v Brown. The case concerned California’s adoption of Proposition 8, which amended the State’s constitution to prevent the Californian state from recognising the union of same-sex couples with the designation “marriage”. The Court found that Proposition 8 violated the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution.

In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeals considered only whether the Equal Protection Clause protects minority groups from being targeted for the deprivation of an existing right without a legitimate reason and whether the People of California had such reasons.

In analysing the impact of the provision, the Court emphasised “the extraordinary significance of the official designation of ‘marriage’”, which is “the principal manner in which the State attaches respect and dignity to the highest form of a committed relationship and to the individuals who have entered into it”. In taking away the designation of “marriage” the People of California took away “the societal approval that comes with it”. 

The Court found that Proposition 8 did not serve any of the state interests put forward by its  sponsors, and expressly rejected the argument that denying same-sex couples the right to call themselves “married” could bolster the stability of families headed by one man and one woman:

The argument that withdrawing the designation of “marriage” from same-sex couples could on its own promote the strength or stability of opposite-sex marital relationships lacks any (...) footing in reality.

In the absence of any legitimate purpose for Proposition 8, the court was left with “the inevitable inference” that the disadvantage imposed by it was born out of disapproval of gays and lesbians as a class. Its effect was to “send a message that gays and lesbians are of lesser worth as a class – that they enjoy a lesser societal status”. The Court concluded that “Proposition 8 enacts nothing more or less than a judgment about the worth and dignity of gays and lesbians as a class” and that disapproval of a class of people cannot constitute a legitimate government interest.

To read a case summary of Perry v Brown click here.

To read the judgment in Perry v Brown, click here.