An Idea Whose Time Has Gone

The Indiana General Assembly is once again debating whether to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. That debate has been criticized as a distraction from the State’s pressing fiscal problems, and it is. But the proposal, HR6, is also bad public policy—whether or not one approves of same-sex marriage.

In my law and policy class, I employ a standard framework for analyzing proposed laws. The threshold question—required by the Constitution’s limitation on the powers of government—is whether the subject-matter falls within the proper scope and authority of the state. If it does, we investigate further, testing whether there is broad consensus on the existence and nature of the problem to be solved, whether the proposed law will solve the problem, and whether there are likely to be unintended negative consequences if the measure becomes law.

Applying that framework to HR6 is illuminating.

The regulation of marriage, in our system, is a state responsibility, so HR6 arguably meets that threshold. It’s all downhill from there.

Broad social agreement about the need for a law is an element of legitimacy. (That’s why people debating new policies point to polls showing support for their position.) In this case, whatever consensus there may once have been against same-sex marriage is demonstrably past-tense.

Same-sex marriages are legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.  New York, Rhode Island and Maryland recognize same-sex marriages conducted elsewhere. Several other states recognize civil unions. Religious doctrine is equally fragmented and increasing numbers of churches and synagogues bless same-sex unions. Surveys of public opinion show a public that is almost equally divided on the subject.

Will passage of HR6 solve the problem? No.

Even if one believes that same-sex marriages are a “problem,” enacting HR6 will change nothing. Indiana law currently prohibits recognition of such marriages and that prohibition has been upheld by our courts. The only way we’ll get same-sex marriage in Indiana is if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Equal Protection doctrine requires it—and if that happens, a state constitutional ban would be unenforceable.

And what about those unintended consequences?

Several of Indiana’s largest employers have warned that enactment of HR6 will hobble them as they compete for the best employees. Economic development professionals warn that passage will make it more difficult to attract new businesses to the state.

Public employers—universities and municipalities with policies or ordinances granting health insurance and other benefits to employees—fear that HR6 will invalidate those benefits. (At IU, that would make us considerably less competitive for faculty, whether straight or gay.)

Corporate lawyers warn that the language of HR6 could be read to prohibit even private companies from providing benefits to unmarried partners. (HR6 by its terms applies to all unmarried couples, not just gay couples.) Proponents deny that possibility, but ultimately, it is an issue that will be litigated, and lawsuits are time-consuming and expensive.

Of course, there are also the uncertain consequences of creating a precedent by writing discrimination into the Constitution. If we can marginalize one disfavored group, why not others? Immigrants? Muslims? Atheists?

At the end of the day, this is an argument between two very different versions of morality and beliefs about the role of government.

A dwindling number of Americans believe that homosexuality is a chosen, immoral behavior, and despite growing scientific consensus that sexual orientation is immutable—that people are born homosexual or heterosexual—they want to use the power of government to stigmatize gay people.

Others of us believe that denying people equal treatment under the law because of who they are—whether that second-class status is based upon race, gender or sexual orientation—is not only unconstitutional, but deeply immoral.