Relatively new to equal protection case law, cases regarding discrimination based on sexual orientation have been essential in counteracting legislation that disadvantages the LGBTQ community. Perhaps most importantly, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to include the protection of marriage equality.
"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation
In Romer v. Evans,1 the Supreme Court struck down a state constitutional amendment that both overturned local ordinances prohibiting discrimination against the LGBTQ community and prohibited any state or local governmental action to either remedy discrimination or to grant preferences based on sexual orientation.
The Court declined to follow the lead of the Supreme Court of Colorado, which held that the amendment infringed on the fundamental right to participate in the political process.2 The Court also rejected the application of the heightened standard reserved for suspect classes and sought only to establish whether the legislative classification had a rational relation to a legitimate end.
The Court found that the amendment failed even this restrained review. The animus against a class of persons was not considered by the Court as a legitimate goal of government:
"[I]f the constitutional conception of 'equal protection of the laws' means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare . . . desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest."3
The Court then rejected arguments that the amendment protected the freedom of association rights of landlords and employers, or that it would conserve resources in fighting discrimination against other groups. The Court found that the scope of the law was unnecessarily broad to achieve these stated purposes and that no other legitimate rationale existed for such a restriction.
In United States v. Windsor,4 the Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which provided that for purposes of any federal act, ruling, regulation, or interpretation by an administrative agency, the word spouse would mean a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.5 In Windsor, the petitioner had been married to her same-sex partner in Canada and she lived in New York, where the marriage was recognized. After her partner died, the petitioner sought to claim a federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses.6
In examining the federal statute, the Court initially noted that, while "[b]y history and tradition the definition and regulation of marriage . . . has been treated as being within the authority and realm of the separate States,"7 Section 3 of DOMA took the unusual step of departing from the history and tradition of reliance on state law to define marriage in order to alter the reach of over 1,000 federal laws and limit the scope of federal benefits.8
Citing to Romer, the Court noted that discrimination of unusual character warranted more careful scrutiny.9 In approving of same-sex marriages, the State of New York was conferring "dignity and status of immense import,"10 and the federal government, with Section 3 of DOMA, was aiming to impose "restrictions and disabilities" on and "injure the very class" New York sought to protect.11
In so doing, the Court concluded that Section 3 of DOMA was motivated by improper animus or purpose because the law's avowed purpose and practical effect was to "impose a . . . stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the states."12
Holding that no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,13 the Court held that Section 3 of DOMA violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.14 In striking down Section 3, the Court did not expressly set out what test the government must meet to justify laws calling for differentiated treatment based on sexual orientation.
Two years after Windsor, the Court, in Obergefell v. Hodges, invalidated several state laws limiting the licensing and recognition of marriage to two people of the opposite sex.15 While the decision primarily rested on substantive due process grounds,16 the Court noted that the right of same-sex couples to marry is derived, too, from the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.17
In so holding, the Court recognized a general synergy between the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause, noting that just as evolving societal norms inform the liberty rights of same-sex couples, so too do new insights and societal understandings about homosexuality reveal unjustified inequality with respect to traditional concepts about the institution of marriage.18 In this sense, the Court viewed marriage laws prohibiting the licensing and recognition of same-sex marriages as working a grave and continuing harm to same-sex couples, serving to disrespect and subordinate them.19 As a result, the Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause prevents states from excluding same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.20