Today’s announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder that the federal government will recognize the marriage licenses of same-sex couples in Utah—even though the state announced earlier this week that it would not—highlights the need for the federal government to respect state marriage laws. Just yesterday, bipartisan legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives that does just that.
The “State Marriage Defense Act of 2014,” HR 3829, requires the federal government to respect state laws on marriage. The Act requires the federal government to look to the laws of the state where citizens reside to determine the definition of “marriage.” It states that the term “marriage” shall “not include any relationship which that State, territory, or possession does not recognize as a marriage, and the term ‘spouse’ shall not include an individual who is a party to a relationship that is not recognized as a marriage by that State, territory, or possession.”
Last summer, when the Supreme Court invalidated parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Court reaffirmed that “the significance of state responsibilities for the definition and regulation of marriage dates to the Nation’s beginning; for ‘when the Constitution was adopted the common understanding was that the domestic relations of husband and wife and parent and child were matters reserved to the States.’” The states remain free—and should continue to remain free—to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
The Supreme Court ruled against portions of DOMA because, the Court claimed, the federal law “put a thumb on the scales and influence[d] a state’s decision as to how to shape its own marriage laws.” It decried that DOMA created “two contradictory marriage regimes within the same state.”
But the actions of the Obama Administration earlier this summer and then again today create two contradictory regimes as they redefine marriage for federal purposes even in states that retain laws that reflect the truth about marriage as the union of a man and woman. These federal agencies have overreached, as Notre Dame Law Professor Gerard V. Bradley explains:
These agencies have no inherent legal authority to define marriage. Neither does the President or his Attorney General, so long as Congress has exercised its paramount authority to do so. The State Marriage Defense Act will thus restore proper legal order to the scene and correct the administration’s unlawful practice.
Redefining marriage will entail high social costs. Thus all Americans should insist our laws embody the truth about marriage. And the federal government should respect it when state laws do so.