Chief Justice John Roberts’ ‘Friendship’ Analogy At The SCOTUS Same-Sex Marriage Trial Was Actually Apt
This week, all eyes are on the Supreme Court as it hears arguments against the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Prop 8. The implications are huge, with the possibility that every state in America will have to grant marriage rights to couples regardless of sexual orientation. But a peculiar question arose from Chief Justice John Roberts that has supporters of marriage equality concerned. Here’s our take on it.
According to audio released by MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Roberts asked this during oral arguments:
“If you tell a child that somebody has to be their friend, I suppose you can force the child to say ‘this is my friend.’ But it changes the definition of what it means to be a friend. And that’s, it seems to me, what (supporters?) of Proposition 8 are saying here. All you’re interested in is the label, and you insist on changing the definition of the label.”
It should be noted that I’m not familiar with Supreme Court proceedings. I don’t know if Chief Justice Roberts’ question necessarily means that he personally believes that marriage equality is as trivial a matter as kindergarten social drama. There’s obviously a possibility that he was simply trying to push gay rights advocates to clarify their message or address a specific concern of other Justices. I’m not going to try to parse Roberts’ feelings on the case based on this question.
I am going to attempt to answer it though.
I think that both Justice Roberts’ example of forcing children to call their classmates “friends” and the very focus on the word “marriage” itself detract from the major point of fairness and respect that underlay these two problems.
The reason teachers tell young children to be friends with everyone isn’t because they want the children to form deep long-lasting friendships. They aren’t saying the kids have to play together or have to agree all of the time. Teachers tell their kids to be “good friends” to everyone because it’s their way of communicating respectfulness, kindness, and tolerance. I suppose in that way, the Chief Justice is right in that we change the definition of friendship to better communicate our expectations to children.
That being said, perhaps it really is time to change the definition of marriage so that we, as a country, can recognize and respect the rights of other couples around us, whether we want to be just like them or not. Perhaps we need to be told to be friends with everyone, even if it is in the most basic and kindergarten-like sense of the term. With kindness, respect everyone’s right to form their own relationships and commitments.
Marriage is a difficult event and status to define already. When our government is supposed to be separate from religion, it is both a religious and state institution. Marriage equality is not fighting to be recognized by the religions of the world, as the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over what those organizations chose to accept or claim as their own. Marriage equality is really fighting for the government status that comes with being married. It is concerned with tax breaks and employee health benefits, family law and the right to designate a next of kin. Same-sex couples are not fighting for a ceremony, they are fighting for the right to legally form their families.
It is these rights that deserve the same respect and tolerance that kindergarten teachers are attempting to enforce. You don’t have to like someone, but you have to be polite to them. You don’t have to agree with someone’s sexuality, but you have to respect their right to express it in the form of a legal commitment to their partner.
We cannot force everyone to be friends. We cannot force everyone to like the idea of same-sex marriage. But just as the grade school teachers taught us, we can demand that people be respectful. Whether you call that “friendship” or “marriage equality” doesn’t really matter. It’s the underlying principle we need to be concerned with. And it’s the underlying principle that the Court must decide in favor of.