Marriage and Familial Relations
In Zablocki v. Redhail,18 importing into equal protection analysis the doctrines developed in substantive due process, the Court identified the right to marry as a “fundamental interest” that necessitates “critical examination” of governmental restrictions which “interfere directly and substantially” with the right.19 Struck down was a statute that prohibited any resident under an obligation to support minor children from marrying without a court order; such order could only be obtained upon a showing that the support obligation had been and was being complied with and that the children were not and were not likely to become public charges. The plaintiff was an indigent wishing to marry but prevented from doing so because he was not complying with a court order to pay support to an illegitimate child he had fathered, and because the child was re[p.1915]ceiving public assistance. Applying “critical examination,” the Court observed that the statutory prohibition could not be sustained unless it was justified by sufficiently important state interests and was closely tailored to effectuate only those interests.20 Two interests were offered that the Court was willing to accept as legitimate and substantial: requiring permission under the circumstances furnished an opportunity to counsel applicants on the necessity of fulfilling support obligations, and the process protected the welfare of children who needed support, either by providing an incentive to make support payments or by preventing applicants from incurring new obligations through marriage. The first interest was not served, the Court found, there being no provision for counseling and no authorization of permission to marry once counseling had taken place. The second interest was found not to be effectuated by the means. Alternative devices to collect support existed, the process simply prevented marriage without delivering any money to the children, and it singled out obligations incurred through marriage without reaching any other obligations.
Other restrictions that relate to the incidents of or prerequisites for marriage were carefully distinguished by the Court as neither entitled to rigorous scrutiny nor put in jeopardy by the decision.21 For example, in Califano v. Jobst,22 a unanimous Court sustained a Social Security provision that revoked disabled dependents’ benefits of any person who married, except when the person married someone who was also entitled to receive disabled dependents’ benefits. Plaintiff, a recipient of such benefits, married someone who was also disabled but not qualified for the benefits, and his benefits were terminated. He sued, alleging that distinguishing between classes of persons who married eligible persons and who married ineligible persons infringed upon his right to marry. The Court rejected the argument, finding that benefit entitlement was not based upon need but rather upon actual dependency upon the insured wage earner; marriage, Congress could have assumed, generally terminates the dependency upon a parent–wage earner. Therefore, it was permissible as an administrative convenience to make marriage the terminating point but to make an exception[p.1916]when both marriage partners were receiving benefits, as a means of lessening hardship and recognizing that dependency was likely to continue. The marriage rule was therefore not to be strictly scrutinized or invalidated “simply because some persons who might otherwise have married were deterred by the rule or because some who did marry were burdened thereby.”23
It seems obvious, therefore, that the determination of marriage and familial relationships as fundamental will be a fruitful beginning of litigation in the equal protection area.24
Supplement: [P. 1916, add new heading and text following n.24:]
In Romer v. Evans,48 the Supreme Court struck down a state constitutional amendment which both overturned local ordinances prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals, lesbians or bisexuals, and prohibited any state or local governmental action to either remedy discrimination or to grant preferences based on sexual orientation. The Court declined to follow the lead of the Supreme Court of Colorado, which had held that the amendment infringed on gays’ and lesbians’ fundamental right to participate in the political process.49 The Court also rejected the application of the heightened standard reserved for suspect classes, and sought only to determine whether the legislative classification had a rational relation to a legitimate end.
The Court found that the amendment failed even this restrained review. Animus against a class of persons was not considered by the Court as a legitimate goal of government: “[I]f the constitutional conception of ‘equal protection of the laws’ means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare . . . desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest.” 50 The Court then rejected arguments that the amendment protected the freedom of association rights of landlords and employers, or that it would conserve resources in fighting discrimination against other groups. The Court found that the scope of the law was unnecessarily broad to achieve these stated purposes, and that no other legitimate rationale existed for such a restriction.