Although sexual orientation is officially not a suspect class, almost all U.S. courts that have considered the permissibility of discrimination based upon that particular criterion have applied, in practice, a rather more exacting examination of the legislative objectives behind the discriminatory legislation than is typically permitted under rational basis review, even while simultaneously denying that they are doing anything of the sort. This is what is typically referred to as “rational basis with teeth” — the unofficial fourth category of review under the 14th Amendment. And until sexual orientation is declared to be a suspect class, or until the classification system is replaced with a scale, the courts can do nothing else.
But at least in the context of same sex marriage prohibitions, could intermediate scrutiny be directly invoked on the basis of the Supreme Court’s prior illegitimacy jurisprudence? Illegitimate children are already a suspect class under the law; it is impermissible under the 14th Amendment to burden children whose parents were not married at the time of their birth simply in order to encourage future couples to get married before having kids. So why can the state require that the children of same sex couples be illegitimate in order to encourage opposite sex couples to make their children legitimate?
The argument does not appear to be a particularly common one, but I wonder now why it isn’t made more often. One of the reoccurring arguments touted as a justification for Prop 8, as well as other prohibitions on gay marriage, is that marriage is uniquely designed to encourage responsible procreation, and that access to marriage should therefore only be granted where it will serve as a deterrent to reproducing accidentally outside of marriage. Marriage is only for straight people, the argument goes, because only straight people produce kids the old fashioned way, and the best way to raise kids that were produced the old fashioned way in the context of a marital relationship.
This argument is inadequate in that it provides no explanation for why kids that were not produced on accident are not also best raised in the context of a martial relationship. Many gay couples do, very purposefully, create and raise kids, and if kids are best raised by married couples, then it is pretty damned spiteful to order that those kids should be denied the benefit of married parents just so that straight couples who get pregnant are more likely to have a shotgun wedding.
Beyond being spiteful, prior Supreme Court decisions have repeatedly indicated that the objective itself is impermissible. In Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U.S. 762 (1977), the Supreme Court rejected the argument that a law prohibiting intestate succession of bastards was constitutionally permissible, because
[i]n a case like this, the Equal Protection Clause requires more than the mere incantation of a proper state purpose. No one disputes the appropriateness of Illinois’ concern with the family unit, perhaps the most fundamental social institution of our society. The flaw in the analysis lies elsewhere. As we said in Lucas, the constitutionality of this law “depends upon the character of the discrimination and its relation to legitimate legislative aims.” 427 U.S. at 504. The court below did not address the relation between § 12 and the promotion of legitimate family relationships, thus leaving the constitutional analysis incomplete. The same observation can be made about this Court’s decision in Labine, but that case does not stand alone. In subsequent decisions, we have expressly considered and rejected the argument that a State may attempt to influence the actions of men and women by imposing sanctions on the children born of their illegitimate relationships.
Likewise in Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 406 U.S. 164 (1972), the Supreme Court refused to accept the argument that it is permissible to discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate children as a means of encouraging people to “shun illicit relations because the offspring [of those relationships] may not one day reap the benefits of workmen’s compensation.” 406 U.S. at 173. The Court found that the State’s interest in protecting “legitimate family relationships” may have been itself a legitimate objective, but it was not an end that could be promoted by inflicting hardship on those who happened to not be part of a traditional nuclear family arrangement:
[t]he status of illegitimacy has expressed through the ages society’s condemnation of irresponsible liaisons beyond the bonds of marriage. But visiting this condemnation on the head of an infant is illogical and unjust. Moreover, imposing disabilities on the illegitimate child is contrary to the basic concept of our system that legal burdens should bear some relationship to individual responsibility or wrongdoing. Obviously, no child is responsible for his birth, and penalizing the illegitimate child is an ineffectual — as well as an unjust — way of deterring the parent.
Almost all of the Supreme Court’s past opinions on distinctions based upon illegitimacy contain language that would be equally at home in the decision issued today by the 9th Circuit in Perry v. Brown. Gay couples are not responsible for the fact that straight people sometimes get knocked up — so why are they punished, and their kids forced to be illegitimate, on the chance that there could be a straight couple out there that would refuse to enter into any relationship that gay people were also allowed to enter? Punishing gay couples, and their children, by prohibiting them from entering into the contractual arrangement that the state has deemed the best for children to be raised in, does exactly what the Weber Court prohibited: it imposes disabilities on those who are not engaging in irresponsible procreation as a means of encouraging better behavior from those who are not being similarly responsible.