This is a case about change—and how best to handle it under the United States Constitution. From the vantage point of 2014, it would now seem, the question is not whether American law will allow gay couples to marry; it is when and how that will happen. That would not have seemed likely as recently as a dozen years ago. For better, for worse, or for more of the same, marriage has long been a social institution defined by relationships between men and women. So long defined, the tradition is measured in millennia, not centuries or decades. So widely shared, the tradition until recently had been adopted by all governments and major religions of the world.
But things change, sometimes quickly. Since 2003, nineteen States and the District of Columbia have expanded the definition of marriage to include gay couples, some through state legislation, some through initiatives of the people, some through state court decisions, and some through the actions of state governors and attorneys general who opted not to appeal adverse court decisions. Nor does this momentum show any signs of slowing. Twelve of the nineteen States that now recognize gay marriage did so in the last couple of years. On top of that, four federal courts of appeals have compelled several other States to permit same-sex marriages under the Fourteenth Amendment.
What remains is a debate about whether to allow the democratic processes begun in the States to continue in the four States of the Sixth Circuit or to end them now by requiring all States in the Circuit to extend the definition of marriage to encompass gay couples. Process and structure matter greatly in American government. Indeed, they may be the most reliable, liberty- assuring guarantees of our system of government, requiring us to take seriously the route the United States Constitution contemplates for making such a fundamental change to such a fundamental social institution.
Of all the ways to resolve this question, one option is not available: a poll of the three judges on this panel, or for that matter all federal judges, about whether gay marriage is a good idea. Our judicial commissions did not come with such a sweeping grant of authority, one that would allow just three of us—just two of us in truth—to make such a vital policy call for the thirty-two million citizens who live within the four States of the Sixth Circuit: Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. What we have authority to decide instead is a legal question: Does the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibit a State from defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman?
Through a mixture of common law decisions, statutes, and constitutional provisions, each State in the Sixth Circuit has long adhered to the traditional definition of marriage. Sixteen gay and lesbian couples claim that this definition violates their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment…..
…In just eleven years, nineteen States and a conspicuous District, accounting for nearly forty-five percent of the population, have exercised their sovereign powers to expand a definition of marriage that until recently was universally followed going back to the earliest days of human history. That is a difficult timeline to criticize as unworthy of further debate and voting. When the courts do not let the people resolve new social issues like this one, they perpetuate the idea that the heroes in these change events are judges and lawyers. Better in this instance, we think, to allow change through the customary political processes, in which the people, gay and straight alike, become the heroes of their own stories by meeting each other not as adversaries in a court system but as fellow citizens seeking to resolve a new social issue in a fair-minded way.
—United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Deboer v Synder (November 6, 2014), 7–8, 42. (HT: HB reader Frank Aderholdt for providing a PDF of the majority opinion and dissent).