Many times, an important legal decision comes with its own language, indecipherable by mere mortals. Today’s 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that upheld a lower court’s ruling that California’s ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional is not one of them.
Consider, for example, this passage on the word “marriage,” which invokes Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx, Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, and Shakespeare. We dare guess it’s the first time in the history of this nation, that a legal ruling has done that.
We need consider only the many ways in which we encounter the word “marriage” in our daily lives and understand it, consciously or not, to convey a sense of significance. We are regularly given forms to complete that ask us whether we are “single” or “married.” newspapers run announcements of births, deaths, and marriages. We are excited to see someone ask, “will you marry me?”, whether on bended knee in a restaurant or in text splashed across a stadium Jumbotron. Certainly it would not have the same effect to see “will you enter into a registered domestic partnership with me?”
Groucho Marx’s one-liner, “marriage is a wonderful institution… but who wants to live in an institution?” would lack its punch if the word “marriage” were replaced with the alternative phrase. So too with Shakespeare’s “A young man married is a man that’s marr’d,” Lincoln’s “marriage is neither heaven nor hell, it simply purgatory,” and Sinatra’s “A man doesn’t know what happiness is until he’s married. By then it’s too late.” We see tropes like “marrying for love” versus “marrying for money” played out again and again in our films and literature because of the recognized important and permanence of the marriage relationship. Had Marilyn Monroe’s films been called How to Register a Domestic Partnership with a Millionaire, it would not have conveyed the same meaning as did her famous movie, even though the underlying drama for same-sex couples is not different. The name “marriage” signifies the unique recognition that society gives to harmonious, loyal, enduring and intimate relationships.”
Here’s the full ruling: