Amdt14.S1.10.5 Marriage and Familial Relations

Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:

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.

In Zablocki v. Redhail, 1 importing into equal protection analysis the doctrines developed in substantive due process, the Court identified the right to marry as a fundamental interest that necessitates critical examination of governmental restrictions that interfere directly and substantially with the right. 2 The Court struck down a statute that prohibited any resident under an obligation to support minor children from marrying without a court order; such order could only be obtained upon a showing that the support obligation had been and was being complied with and that the children were not and were not likely to become public charges. The plaintiff was an indigent wishing to marry but prevented from doing so because he was not complying with a court order to pay support to a child he had fathered out of wedlock, and because the child was receiving public assistance. Applying critical examination, the Court observed that the statutory prohibition could not be sustained unless it was justified by sufficiently important state interests and was closely tailored to effectuate only those interests. 3 Two interests were offered that the Court was willing to accept as legitimate and substantial: requiring permission under the circumstances furnished an opportunity to counsel applicants on the necessity of fulfilling support obligations, and the process protected the welfare of children who needed support, either by providing an incentive to make support payments or by preventing applicants from incurring new obligations through marriage. The first interest was not served, the Court found, there being no provision for counseling and no authorization of permission to marry once counseling had taken place. The second interest was found not to be effectuated by the means. Alternative devices to collect support existed, the process simply prevented marriage without delivering any money to the children, and it singled out obligations incurred through marriage without reaching any other obligations.

Other restrictions that relate to the incidents of or prerequisites for marriage were carefully distinguished by the Court as neither entitled to rigorous scrutiny nor put in jeopardy by the decision. 4 For example, in Califano v. Jobst, 5 a unanimous Court sustained a Social Security provision that revoked disabled dependents’ benefits of any person who married, except when the person married someone who was also entitled to receive disabled dependents’ benefits. Plaintiff, a recipient of such benefits, married someone who was also disabled but not qualified for the benefits, and his benefits were terminated. He sued, alleging that distinguishing between classes of persons who married eligible persons and who married ineligible persons infringed upon his right to marry. The Court rejected the argument, finding that benefit entitlement was not based upon need but rather upon actual dependency upon the insured wage earner; marriage, Congress could have assumed, generally terminates the dependency upon a parent-wage earner. Therefore, it was permissible as an administrative convenience to make marriage the terminating point but to make an exception when both marriage partners were receiving benefits, as a means of lessening hardship and recognizing that dependency was likely to continue. The marriage rule was therefore not to be strictly scrutinized or invalidated simply because some persons who might otherwise have married were deterred by the rule or because some who did marry were burdened thereby.6

It seems obvious, therefore, that the determination of marriage and familial relationships as fundamental will be a fruitful beginning of litigation in the equal protection area. 7


  1.  434 U.S. 374 (1978).
  2.  Although the Court’s due process decisions have broadly defined a protected liberty interest in marriage and family, no previous case had held marriage to be a fundamental right occasioning strict scrutiny. 434 U.S. at 396-397 (Justice Powell concurring).
  3.  434 U.S. at 388. Although the passage is not phrased in the usual compelling interest terms, the concurrence and the dissent so viewed it without evoking disagreement from the Court. Id. at 396 (Justice Powell), 403 (Justice Stevens), 407 (Justice Rehnquist). Justices Powell and Stevens would have applied intermediate scrutiny to void the statute, both for its effect on the ability to marry and for its impact upon indigents. Id. at 400, 406 n.10.
  4.  434 U.S. at 386-87. Chief Justice Burger thought the interference here was intentional and substantial, whereas the provision in Jobst was neither. Id. at 391 (concurring).
  5.  434 U.S. 47 (1977).
  6.  434 U.S. at 54. See also Mathews v. De Castro, 429 U.S. 181 (1976) (provision giving benefits to a married woman under sixty-two with dependent children in her care whose husband retires or becomes disabled but denying them to a divorced woman under sixty-two with dependents represents a rational judgment by Congress with respect to likely dependency of married but not divorced women and does not deny equal protection); Califano v. Boles, 443 U.S. 282 (1979) (limitation of certain Social Security benefits to widows and divorced wives of wage earners does not deprive mother of a child born out of wedlock who was never married to wage earner of equal protection).
  7.  See, e.g., Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246 (1978) (state law generally providing to father of a child born in wedlock who is divorced or separated from mother while denying to father of child born out of wedlock and not "legitimated" under state law a veto over the adoption of the child by another does not under the circumstances deny equal protection. The circumstances were that the father never exercised custody over the child or shouldered responsibility for his supervision, education, protection, or care, although he had made some support payments and given him presents). Accord, Lehr v. Robertson, 463 U.S. 248 (1983).