Decrying what he deemed a “pageant of empathy” in emotionally driven rulings nationwide, this month a federal district court judge from our home state of Louisiana issued a ruling upholding our state’s marriage law. Notably, Judge Martin Feldman’s decision represents the first federal court opinion to uphold a state marriage law since the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor in June 2103, that struck down the portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman for all purposes under federal law.
The opinion is also significant for yet another reason — it underscores the deference the federal government ought to give to the people in the debate over what marriage is and who gets to decide. In 2004, when Louisiana voters were given the opportunity to define marriage, 78 percent of our state affirmed what Judge Feldman called “marriage’s historically pre-eminent purpose of linking children to their biological parents.” Marriage recognizes that mothers and fathers are both essential, and each have an irreplaceable role to play in raising their children.
Judge Feldman’s ruling recognized that while some may not agree with this reasoning, it is nevertheless rational and constitutional for Louisiana voters to adopt such a policy. Indeed, Judge Feldman observed that the Supreme Court cases that have defined marriage as a fundamental right under the Constitution have always involved the marriage of a man and a woman. Thus, for Louisiana to reinforce that view in state law represents no unusual departure from the understanding of marriage that has informed this country since its founding.
Debating the meaning of marriage is one question; settling who gets to decide is another. Here too, Judge Feldman affirmed that Louisiana has a valid interest in letting the opinions of the people — and not of judges — prevail. Recognizing that the debate over marriage has become “society’s latest short fuse,” Judge Feldman says it is not the role of the judiciary to become “philosopher-kings” by assuming “the legislative mantle” to answer a question left unaddressed in the U.S. Constitution. Instead, he asserts what we have long believed — that the people are best served when major social policy questions are settled through a process that involves building consent and mutual understanding.
In fact, despite claims to the contrary in other cases, Judge Feldman rightly notes that the Windsor opinion emphasized the deference that should be given to individual states and their citizens in defining social policy. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the 2013 Windsor ruling that “the significance of state responsibilities for the definition and regulation of marriage dates to the nation’s beginning” and is “central to state domestic relations law.” Though Judge Feldman’s opinion upholding Louisiana’s law stands apart from a slew of other recent federal court rulings striking down state marriage laws, his opinion actually tracks much more closely to the federalism principles described in Windsor.
Judge Feldman noted that his ruling and Louisiana’s law will prompt “predictable controversy.” If there is any one thing we have gleaned over the summer recess from meetings and events with constituents in Louisiana, it’s that on the major policy questions of the day, including marriage, many in our country don’t feel that their voices are being heard.
Most federal judges nationwide have opted to impose marriage redefinition on voters, apart from a legal or constitutional mandate to do so. Judge Feldman’s ruling is a refreshing reminder that some judges are still willing to defer to the law and to the people on important policy questions. That’s good for Louisianans and Americans alike.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, was the author of the 2004 Louisiana state marriage amendment. Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council and previously served in the Louisiana Legislature.