Sex Discrimination and Tradition

In a recent post, co-blogger David Bernstein partially rejects my argument that a ban on same-sex marriage qualifies as sex discrimination. As David puts it:

On the one hand, I agree with Ilya that bans on same-sex marriage could be described as sex discrimination. On the other hand, from opponents’ perspective, the point is that “marriage” has been defined for several thousand years in Judeo-Christian culture as between a man and a woman, and retaining that definition is not sex discrimination.

The opponents’ argument, however, in no way refutes mine. Many forms of sex discrimination have “several thousand years” of tradition behind them, often backed by religion. Consider such cases as the exclusion of women from many professions, unequal divorce laws, the treatment of wives and daughters as the property of their husbands and fathers, and so on. The fact that a form of sex discrimination has existed for a long time and enjoys religious backing does not make it any less discriminatory.

I am also unmoved by David’s analogy between a ban on same-sex marriage and a hypothetical Israeli law under which boys are entitled to a state-recognized “bar mitzvah,” while girls only get a “bat mitzvah,” which has the same legal status but is less prestigious. If the bar/bat mitvah were a government-endorsed legal status rather than a private cultural and religious tradition, it would still be sex discrimination for the state to allocate that status on the basis of gender – especially if one of the two labels were in fact more prestigious than the other. I would say much the same thing about David’s hypothetical of a female monarch who wishes to be labeled a “king” rather than a “queen.” These examples only have intuitive appeal because in modern liberal society, we generally regard bar and bat mitzvahs and kings and queens as essentially equal to each other (though I recognize that many Orthodox Jews disagree as to the bar and bat mitzvahs). It therefore seems pedantic to insist on one label or the other. By contrast, most people see “civil union” as a lower status than “marriage,” even if the legal rights are identical.

Consider a law under which men are classified as “first class citizens” and women as “second class citizens.” Although the distinction was originally enacted for the purpose of asserting male dominance, recent legislation has given second class citizens the same substantive legal rights as first class citizens. But first class status remains more prestigious than second class. Assume also that the idea that women cannot be first class citizens is endorsed by thousands of years of religious and secular tradition. If a woman files a lawsuit claiming that the denial of first class citizen status is sex discrimination, she should surely win – at least under a constitution that either bans sex discrimination outright or subjects it to some form of heightened scrutiny.

As I said in my original post on this subject, not all forms of sex discrimination are unconstitutional. Current Supreme Court jurisprudence subjects gender classifications to heightened “intermediate” scrutiny without banning them completely; and I think this is roughly the right approach. If, for example, opponents of same-sex marriage can prove that legalizing it would inflict serious harm on children, then laws such as California Proposition 8 should not be invalidated. But government-sponsored sex discrimination does not become constitutionally permissible merely because it is backed by religion or tradition or because the discriminatory law in question is mostly symbolic in nature.

UPDATE: I have modified this post slightly in order to eliminate a few stylistic problems.

UPDATE #2: David responds to this post in an update to his original one:

Ilya starts his response by misapprehending my point. It’s not that marriage is “traditionally” between a man and a woman, and therefore limiting marriage to such is not sex discrimination. It’s that the very definition of the word “marriage” has, for hundreds or even thousands of year, been limited to relationships between men and women. Therefore, the argument would be that it’s not sex discrimination to limit the scope of state-recognized marriage to what comes within that definition, just like, e.g., it’s not sex discrimination to limit the title of King to men.

I don’t see how calling this a “definition” adds anything to the debate. Once the “definition” becomes a legal status assigned by the state, there is still sex discrimination if the status is awarded on the basis of gender. If the definition of marriage had, for many years been that it is a relationship between members of the same race, a law embodying that definition would still be an example of racial discrimination.

David also writes that “I want to reiterate that I agree that limiting marriage to opposite sex couples can accurately be described as sex discrimination; the question is whether it can also be accurately described in a different way, and if so, whether courts should stick their collective noses in the controversy by choosing which description they prefer.” As I said in the original post, the “different” description in no way undercuts the fact that the state is engaging in sex discrimination. There is no contradiction between the statement that laws against same-sex marriage discriminate on the basis of gender and the statement that they embody a long-standing definition of marriage. These claims are not mutually exclusive in any way, and both are in fact true.

Finally, David states that “if I’m following Ilya’s logic correctly, it would have been sex discrimination to limit the title of King to men, say, fifty years ago, when the title of Queen may have been considered relatively less important, but it’s not sex discrimination today. I don’t buy it. It was, by the logic of Ilya’s original post, sex discrimination then and it is discrimination now to limit the title King to men, but it also was just what the word ‘King’ meant then and now, and therefore not sex discrimination.”

As in the case of marriage, once “king” becomes a legal status as opposed to a mere word, it is sex discrimination if the state restricts that status on the basis of gender. In a society where there is no meaningful difference between the status of “king” and that of “queen,” however, it would not be sex discrimination if one word describes men who hold the position of monarch and the other women. Whether or not such a difference exists depends on various factors, including social context. Therefore, it is perfectly possible that limiting the title of “king” to men was an example of sex discrimination 50 years ago, but not today. In any event, whatever might be said of kings and queens, few today believe that marriages and civil unions are essentially the same thing, except for quirks of linguistic usage. Certainly not the supporters of Proposition 8, who devoted an enormous of effort to trying to pass a law ensuring that same-sex relationships cannot be legally considered marriages.

UPDATE #3: David has another update to his original post where he states:

The underlying purpose and therefore definition of marriage from thousands of years had nothing to do with race. So I agree that if, say, in the 17th century, instead of simply banning interracial marriage, a statute had simply defined marriage as not including interracial pairings that would be clear racial discrimination, even if “traditional”. By contrast, marriage was an existing form of male-female relationship that the state came to recognize…. so it wasn’t the state creating a sex distinction, it was the state recognizing a preexisting institution.

The state did not merely “recognize” a preexisting institution. It enshrined that institution into law and attached various legal privileges to it. The fact that the state’s official definition of marriage codified a preexisting understanding does not make that definition any less discriminatory. Let’s say that the definition of marriage as confined to same-race relationships had also existed “for thousands of years,” and was just as well-established as the definition of marriage as confined to opposite-sex relationships. Would that mean that a statute incorporating that definition into law is not race-discriminatory? Clearly, such a law would qualify as race discrimination, no matter how much people previously thought that marriage is, by definition, intraracial, or how long such a belief had persisted. The same logic applies to legal definitions of marriage that discriminate on the basis of sex rather than race.