How the U.S. Supreme Court Is Waging War on Marriage

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

These words, which most educated Americans will instantly recognize as the preamble to their Constitution, represent the fortuitous coincidence of great ideas and beautiful prose.

America is a society of “people.” She is not a loose aggregate of individuals. She is a “union,” not a collectivity of fragments. She wants “domestic tranquility,” not discord between intransigent individualists. She is dedicated to “posterity,” not with satiating herself in the present.

The preamble makes it clear enough, as it enumerates its list of great philosophical ideas, that it recognizes man as a social being, one who fulfills himself, attains his happiness and discovers his meaning not in isolation from others but through ordered cooperation with his fellow citizens. The Founding Fathers of the Constitution did not contemplate that it would ever be necessary to amend the spirit of the Constitution that its preamble embodies.

So it would seem. But the sword can be mightier than the shield.

In 1973, by a 7-2 vote, Roe v. Wade found something no one else had found for nearly 200 years, “implied in the penumbra of the Constitution,” namely, a woman's right to abortion established on her right to “privacy.”

It was, in the view of dissenting Justice Byron White, “an act of raw judicial power,” the kind of highly politicized judgment that Justice Edward Curtis had inveighed against. There is no such provision in the Constitution or in constitutional principle. Constitutional lawyer John Noonan Jr. states in his book that bears the intentionally sardonic title, A Private Choice, that Roe v. Wade reduced the woman to “a solo entity unrelated to husband or boyfriend, father or mother … She was conceived atomistically, cut off from family structure.” The legal and cultural processes advancing the “institutionalization of individualism” were well on their way.

Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority decision in Roe v. Wade, wrote the dissenting position 13 years later in another deeply significant case, Bowers v. Hardwick (1986). In this case, the issue before the court centered on the constitutionality of laws against sodomy. By a 5-4 vote, laws against sodomy were upheld.

Blackmun, in his dissent, citing Olmstead v. United States (1928),argued that “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men [is] the right to be let alone.” He reiterated his own principle articulated in Roe v. Wade about the “right to privacy” and cited, approvingly, another pro-abortion decision that stated, “[T]he concept of privacy embodies the moral fact that a person belongs to himself and not others nor to society as a whole” (Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 1977).

Blackmun's willingness to reduce all human beings — or at least, American citizens — to the curious state of nonsocial individual atoms contradicts not only the spirit of the Constitution as embodied in the preamble but also contradicts what we know about the intrinsically and ineradicably social nature of the human person.

“It is not good for man to be alone” has far more than a theological ring. It is the common agreement of psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, historians and anthropologists that the human being is a person who is simultaneously unique and communal. If there is a “moral fact” it is that a human being is not an island of liberty, an atom of autonomy, but a person who expresses his integrity and realizes his authenticity in the context of a society.

It is surely not in the spirit of the Constitution to disenfranchise people from the status of being “people” while reducing them to the status of mere individuals. The Constitution does not contain within itself a provision for self-implosion.

The majority in Bowers v. Hardwick upheld anti-sodomy laws — including those that proscribed homosexual sodomy — in part, because it was in the interest of preserving the good of the family to do so. Responding to this contention, Blackmun offered a most astonishing line of thinking, arguing, “We protect those rights not because they contribute, in some direct or material way, to the general public welfare, but because they form so central a part of an individual's life.”

“We protect the family,” he wrote, “because it contributes so powerfully to the happiness of individuals, not because of a preference for stereotypical households.”

Putting aside his impertinent and cynical description of the family as a “stereotypical household,” what is more significant in this analysis is Blackmun's facile reduction of the joys of family life to the segregated joys of its component individuals.

He speaks of “the ability independently to define one's identity,” as if a man becomes a husband without a wife or a wife becomes a mother without a partner who fathers the child and a married couple attains parenthood apart from having children.

The family, properly understood, is an organic unity. It represents shared life, what the ancient Greeks meant by the word“zoe,” as opposed to “bios,” their word for unshared life as it exists within each individual living thing.

Neither Blackmun nor his like-minded kin seem to be able to grasp the notion of a bond, as it appears, for example, in the “bond of matrimony,” in which two people willingly and often happily begin to live as a two-in-one flesh couple, or husband and wife, or as two who are joined together in wedlock in such a way that they share their life together, no longer as purely distinct individuals but as a union of two persons. A married couple is not a “juxtaposition of solitudes” but a “communion of persons.”

The absolutization of liberty conceived as independence from everything was not achieved, however, until 1992 when, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the majority informed the “people of the United States” that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and the mystery of human life.” Given such spacious and unchecked liberty, legal analysts were left to ponder whether it rendered the rule of law either obsolete or unenforceable.

Can the “rule of law” survive in a nebulous atmosphere that is simultaneously antinomian, acosmic and asocial? Did the framers of the Constitution envision the typical American exercising his freedom within a solitary dream world or by his contribution to the common good?

Justice Antonin Scalia would later refer to this allusion to unbridled liberty as the “passage [that] ate the rule of law.” Such wooly thinking, writes Robert Bork in Slouching Towards Gomorrah (1996), was “intended, though grandiose rhetoric, to appeal to a free-floating spirit of radical autonomy.”

And at the close of The Tempting of America (1990), he offered sober advice to judges who have fragmented the human being into a private and asocial atomic unit: “Those who made and endorsed our Constitution knew man's nature, and it is to their ideas, rather than to the temptations of utopia, that we must ask our judges to adhere.”

The Casey ruling rendered “invalid” the claim that a husband be notified about the impending abortion of his children in the womb. Such a claim, the court said, “constitutes an undue burden” on the pregnant woman.

“It cannot be claimed,” the court went on to declare, “that the father's interest in the fetus’ welfare is equal to the mother's protected liberty.” Here the woman's liberty to kill trumps her husband's fatherly responsibility to protect the life of his own child. In so stating, the court unravels marriage by creating such a broad disparity between husband and wife that marriage in the form of a unity of two equal persons is no longer viable.

The court emphasized this point in its declaration that a marriage in which the father should be notified about the impending abortion of his child is “repugnant to this court's present understanding of marriage and the nature of the rights secured by the Constitution.”

If this decision is not tantamount to the court's opinion that marriage is essentially unconstitutional, it is exceedingly and dangerously close. And this narrow gap was made even smaller by the 2003 Lawrence et al. v. Texas decision that overturned the Bowers v. Hardwick ruling.

Writing for the majority in the Lawrence case, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited the infamous “mystery passage” (which Scalia lampooned as the “sweet-mystery-of-life passage”) as a way of explaining “the respect the Constitution demands for the autonomy of the person in making these choices [homosexual sodomy]. … Persons in a homosexual relationship may seek autonomy for their purposes, just as heterosexual persons do.”

The Lawrence decision, by finding a right to sodomy in the Constitution (but apparently not for marriage as it is properly understood), relied on a principle of liberty so broad that it would apply equally and logically to the right to homosexual marriage as well as to polygamy and incest. Nonetheless, the court pretends that such application will not obtain and that we need not fear the judicial imposition of homosexual marriage.

To this groundless claim, Scalia warns in his dissent, “Do not believe it.” After dismantling as morally significant the difference between heterosexual and homosexual congress, what reason is left for the court to deny the benefit of marriage to homosexual partners who, in their constitutionally protected liberty, choose to marry?

For Scalia, who in reference to this point is merely applying logic, there is none, but only “if one entertains the belief that principle and logic have nothing to do with the decisions of this court. Many hope that, as the court comfortingly assures us, this is so.”

John Noonan Jr. has pointed out, “The liberty of abortion became larger than any liberty located within the family structure.” Liberty preserves its value not when it is isolated from responsibility but only when it is wed to it.

It is not good for either man or liberty to be alone. In divorcing great ideas from their complementary and vivifying counterparts, the Supreme Court has created a dynamic rift that ever increasingly separates wife from husband, parents from children, family from society and individuals from the common good. It is a self-destructive process and desperately cries out for remedy.

The Supreme Court has been usurping the democratic process. “We should get out of this area, where we have no right to be,” Scalia writes in his dissent from the Casey ruling, “and where we do neither ourselves nor the country any good by remaining.

Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome's University and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminry.