In the Iowa Supreme Court’s opinion declaring traditional marriage unconstitutional, the justices dealt with the claim that the law was justified because it protected the integrity of the tradition of heterosexual marriage. The opinion states:
A specific tradition sought to be maintained cannot be an important governmental objective for equal protection purposes, however, when the tradition is nothing more than the historical classification currently expressed in the statute being challenged. When a certain tradition is used as both the governmental objective and the classification to further that objective, the equal protection analysis is transformed into the circular question of whether the classification accomplishes the governmental objective, which objective is to maintain the classification.
As presented by the Court (and for all I know as presented by the attorneys defending the law), the argument sounds circular and absurd. As a technical matter the court was applying intermediate scrutiny, but as presented by the Court the appeal to tradition would seem to fail even a rational basis test.
To anyone with a familiarity with the history of the common law, the notion that the appeal to tradition is circular or vacuous is striking. The classical common law theorists of the seventeenth century – Coke, Hale, and Selden – thought that tradition was the primary justification for the law’s authority. Independent of the particular issue of same-sex marriage, the Iowa Supreme Court’s opinion shows how far our legal thinking has traveled.
It is, of course, always easy to dismiss the strange thoughts of the past as so much benighted nonsense, and to look at the seventeenth century appeal to tradition as a bit of rhetorical clap trap and nothing more. Certainly, there was more than a little bit of fiction in the appeal to immemorial custom. The appeal to tradition, however, was not without its reasons.
There are, it seems to me, at least three reasons for adhering to tradition because it is tradition.