Last Sunday marked the one year anniversary of Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the Supreme Court ruled that excluding same-sex couples from marriage was unconstitutional. Obergefell was a huge development not only for the United States, but also for the world. Boris Dittrich, Advocacy Director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, has predicted that Obergefell “will reverberate in many countries that still deny people the right to marry the person they love.”
As countries around the world draw inspiration from Obergefell, I hope Obergefell will not overshadow Fourie v. Minister of Home Affairs, another important case in the international arena. In 2005—nearly a decade before Obergefell—South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled in Fourie that depriving same-sex couples of the ability to marry violated constitutional protections of dignity and equality. South Africa’s Constitutional Court became the first national apex court to decide that barring same-sex couples from marriage is unconstitutional.
Many aspects of Fourie fascinate me, but in the confined space of this blog post, I will focus on just two. First, in comparison with Obergefell, Fourie offers a competing—and more compelling—conceptualization of the relationship between marriage and dignity. In Obergefell, Justice Kennedy endorsed a highly romanticized view of marriage as an institution that confers dignity upon those who enter it. “Marriage dignifies couples,” he said. “Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.” He talks in grandiose terms about how “[n]o union is more profound than marriage,” and how being denied marriage is “being condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.”
Many commentators have criticized Obergefell for implying that people must get married to be fully dignified. (See, e.g., here, here, and here.) What about people who don’t want to get married, or people who simply haven’t found the right partner to marry? Obergefell’s over-the-top romanticization of marriage marginalizes these segments of society.
For the record: I’m married, I love being married, and I love being married to a spouse of the same sex! But I also think marriage is not for everyone, and that’s one reason why I admire the Fourie opinion. No other judicial opinion on same-sex marriage has done as good a job as Fourie at explaining the relationship between same-sex marriage and dignity. Fourie makes clear that marriage doesn’t dignify couples. Rather, it’s giving people the decision whether to marry—and whether to marry someone of the same sex—that is most important to dignity.
To the best of my knowledge, Fourie is the only judicial opinion on same-sex marriage that has explicitly engaged queer and feminist critiques of marriage. The Court acknowledged that many same-sex couples might well choose not to marry if given the opportunity. Instead of denigrating that choice, the Court explained that “what is in issue is not the decision to be taken, but the choice that is available. If heterosexual couples have the option of deciding whether to marry or not, so should same-sex couples have the choice . . .”
The South African Constitutional Court also avoided over-romanticizing marriage by emphasizing that marriage rights are important precisely because marriages often fail. If a couple is married, the government will help the couple sort things out if and when they break up. “[T]he law of marriage is invoked both at moments of blissful creation and at times of sad cessation.” If you are not married, you cannot claim the legal protections of divorce.
I am currently writing a law review essay that elaborates on the difference between Obergefell’s and Fourie’s competing visions of marriage, and the ramifications of each view. Stay tuned! In the meantime, I’d like to turn our attention to yet another fascinating aspect of Fourie: the Constitutional Court’s decision to delay providing a remedy to same-sex couples.