This is the time of the law school semester when law students confront sometimes fanciful hypotheticals on final examinations. For various reasons, I’ve already told my (mostly) first-year students in Constitutional Law that I will not be giving them an essay question on Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. But in thinking about the constitutionality of state-law marriage definitions that require a man and a woman for civil marriage, I came up with a question about a hypothetical piece of legislation that seems like it could fit on a final examination this year. Since I won’t be putting it on an examination, I thought I’d post it and see if readers have analyses that they would like to share, whether on another blog or in the comments here.
Suppose that Congress passes and President Obama signs new federal legislation, The Defense of Marriage Equality Act (“DOMEA”). The operative provisions of DOMEA state: “(1) No state shall deny civil marriage to any person because he or she has chosen to marry a person of the same sex. (2) No state shall refuse to recognize a civil marriage that was performed in another state, and remains valid in the state of celebration, on the ground that the married couple are persons of the same sex.”
Congress’s premise in passing DOMEA is that federal legislation is needed to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which protects the right to marry for all people, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits classifications that burden fundamental rights and that discriminate against disfavored classes. A “Findings” section of DOMEA states, among other things, “Congress finds that state laws that limit marriage to one man and one woman violate the Fourteenth Amendment because such laws deny gays and lesbians the constitutionally protected right to marry the partner of their choosing.” This congressional finding is based on the Supreme Court’s decisions in Windsor, Lawrence, and Romer, as well as the string of post-Windsor lower-court decisions that have (thus far unanimously) held opposite-sex-only marriage definitions unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Does Congress have authority under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to enact DOMEA? Provide a brief analysis setting forth the strongest arguments and counter-arguments in support of your conclusion.