Justice THOMAS, with whom Justice SCALIA joins, dissenting.
The Court’s decision today is at odds not only with the Constitution, but with the principles upon which our Nation was built. Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits. The Framers created our Constitution to preserve that understanding of liberty. Yet the majority invokes our Constitution in the name of a “liberty” that the Framers would not have recognized, to the detriment of the liberty they sought to protect. Along the way, it rejects the idea — captured in our Declaration of Independence — that human dignity is innate and suggests instead that it comes from the Government. This distortion of our Constitution not only ignores the text, it inverts the relationship between the individual and the state in our Republic. I cannot agree with it.
The majority’s decision today will require States to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and to recognize same-sex marriages entered in other States largely based on a constitutional provision guaranteeing “due process” before a person is deprived of his “life, liberty, or property.” I have elsewhere explained the dangerous fiction of treating the Due Process Clause as a font of substantive rights. McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742, 811-812, 130 S.Ct. 3020, 177 L.Ed.2d 894 (2010) (THOMAS, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). It distorts the constitutional text, which guarantees only whatever “process” is “due” before a person is deprived of life, liberty, and property. U.S. Const., Amdt. 14, § 1. Worse, it invites judges to do exactly what the majority has done here — “`roa[m] at large in the constitutional field’ guided only by their personal views” as to the “`fundamental rights'” protected by that document. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 953, 965, 112 S.Ct. 2791, 120 L.Ed.2d 674 (1992) (Rehnquist, C.J., concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part) (quoting Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 502, 85 S.Ct. 1678, 14 L.Ed.2d 510 (1965) (Harlan, J., concurring in judgment)).
By straying from the text of the Constitution, substantive due process exalts judges at the expense of the People from whom they derive their authority. Petitioners argue that by enshrining the traditional definition of marriage in their State Constitutions through voter-approved amendments, the States have put the issue “beyond the reach of the normal democratic process.” Brief for Petitioners in No. 14-562, p. 54. But the result petitioners seek is far less democratic. They ask nine judges on this Court to enshrine their definition of marriage in the Federal Constitution and thus put it beyond the reach of the normal democratic process for the entire Nation. That a “bare majority” of
this Court, ante, at 2606, is able to grant this wish, wiping out with a stroke of the keyboard the results of the political process in over 30 States, based on a provision that guarantees only “due process” is but further evidence of the danger of substantive due process.1
Even if the doctrine of substantive due process were somehow defensible — it is not — petitioners still would not have a claim. To invoke the protection of the Due Process Clause at all — whether under a theory of “substantive” or “procedural” due process — a party must first identify a deprivation of “life, liberty, or property.” The majority claims these state laws deprive petitioners of “liberty,” but the concept of “liberty” it conjures up bears no resemblance to any plausible meaning of that word as it is used in the Due Process Clauses.
As used in the Due Process Clauses, “liberty” most likely refers to “the power of locomotion, of changing situation, or removing one’s person to whatsoever place one’s own inclination may direct; without imprisonment or restraint, unless by due course of law.” 1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 130 (1769) (Blackstone). That definition is drawn from the historical roots of the Clauses and is consistent with our Constitution’s text and structure.
Both of the Constitution’s Due Process Clauses reach back to Magna Carta. See Davidson v. New Orleans, 96 U.S. 97, 101-102, 24 L.Ed. 616 (1878). Chapter 39 of the original Magna Carta provided, “No free man shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.” Magna Carta, ch. 39, in A. Howard, Magna Carta: Text and Commentary 43 (1964). Although the 1215 version of Magna Carta was in effect for only a few weeks, this provision was later reissued in 1225 with modest changes to its wording as follows: “No freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or be disseised of his freehold, or liberties, or free customs, or be out-lawed, or exiled, or any otherwise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” 1 E. Coke, The Second Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England 45 (1797). In his influential commentary on the provision many years later, Sir Edward Coke interpreted the words “by the law of the land” to mean the same thing as “by due proces of the common law.” Id., at 50.
After Magna Carta became subject to renewed interest in the 17th century, see, e.g., ibid., William Blackstone referred to this provision as protecting the “absolute rights of every Englishman.” 1 Blackstone 123. And he formulated those absolute rights as “the right of personal security,” which included the right to life; “the right of personal liberty”; and “the right of private property.” Id., at 125. He defined “the right of personal liberty” as “the power of locomotion, of changing situation,
or removing one’s person to whatsoever place one’s own inclination may direct; without imprisonment or restraint, unless by due course of law.” Id., at 125, 130.2The Framers drew heavily upon Blackstone’s formulation, adopting provisions in early State Constitutions that replicated Magna Carta’s language, but were modified to refer specifically to “life, liberty, or property.”3 State decisions interpreting these provisions between the founding and the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment almost uniformly construed the word “liberty” to refer only to freedom from physical restraint. See Warren, The New “Liberty” Under the Fourteenth Amendment, 39 Harv. L. Rev. 431, 441-445 (1926). Even one case that has been identified as a possible exception to that view merely used broad language about liberty in the context of a habeas corpus proceeding — a proceeding classically associated with obtaining freedom from physical restraint. Cf. id., at 444-445.
In enacting the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, the Framers similarly chose to employ the “life, liberty, or property” formulation, though they otherwise deviated substantially from the States’ use of Magna Carta’s language in the Clause. See Shattuck, The True Meaning of the Term “Liberty” in Those Clauses in the Federal and State Constitutions Which Protect “Life, Liberty, and Property,” 4 Harv. L. Rev. 365, 382 (1890). When read in light of the history of that formulation, it is hard to see how the “liberty” protected by the Clause could be interpreted to include anything broader than freedom from physical restraint. That was the consistent usage of the time when “liberty” was paired with “life” and “property.” See id., at 375. And that usage avoids rendering superfluous those protections for “life” and “property.”
If the Fifth Amendment uses “liberty” in this narrow sense, then the Fourteenth Amendment likely does as well. See Hurtado v. California, 110 U.S. 516, 534-535, 4 S.Ct. 111, 28 L.Ed. 232 (1884). Indeed, this Court has previously commented, “The conclusion is … irresistible, that when the same phrase was employed in
the Fourteenth Amendment [as was used in the Fifth Amendment], it was used in the same sense and with no greater extent.” Ibid. And this Court’s earliest Fourteenth Amendment decisions appear to interpret the Clause as using “liberty” to mean freedom from physical restraint. In Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113, 24 L.Ed. 77 (1877), for example, the Court recognized the relationship between the two Due Process Clauses and Magna Carta, see id., at 123-124, and implicitly rejected the dissent’s argument that “`liberty'” encompassed “something more … than mere freedom from physical restraint or the bounds of a prison,” id., at 142 (Field, J., dissenting). That the Court appears to have lost its way in more recent years does not justify deviating from the original meaning of the Clauses.
Even assuming that the “liberty” in those Clauses encompasses something more than freedom from physical restraint, it would not include the types of rights claimed by the majority. In the American legal tradition, liberty has long been understood as individual freedom from governmental action, not as a right to a particular governmental entitlement.
The founding-era understanding of liberty was heavily influenced by John Locke, whose writings “on natural rights and on the social and governmental contract” were cited “[i]n pamphlet after pamphlet” by American writers. B. Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution 27 (1967). Locke described men as existing in a state of nature, possessed of the “perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” J. Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, § 4, p. 4 (J. Gough ed. 1947) (Locke). Because that state of nature left men insecure in their persons and property, they entered civil society, trading a portion of their natural liberty for an increase in their security. See id., § 97, at 49. Upon consenting to that order, men obtained civil liberty, or the freedom “to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact according to the trust put in it.” Id., § 22, at 13.4
This philosophy permeated the 18th-century political scene in America. A 1756 editorial in the Boston Gazette, for example, declared that “Liberty in the State of
Nature” was the “inherent natural Right” “of each Man” “to make a free Use of his Reason and Understanding, and to chuse that Action which he thinks he can give the best Account of,” but that, “in Society, every Man parts with a Small Share of his natural Liberty, or lodges it in the publick Stock, that he may possess the Remainder without Controul.” Boston Gazette and Country Journal, No. 58, May 10, 1756, p. 1. Similar sentiments were expressed in public speeches, sermons, and letters of the time. See 1 C. Hyneman & D. Lutz, American Political Writing During the Founding Era 1760-1805, pp. 100, 308, 385 (1983).The founding-era idea of civil liberty as natural liberty constrained by human law necessarily involved only those freedoms that existed outside of government. See Hamburger, Natural Rights, Natural Law, and American Constitutions, 102 Yale L.J. 907, 918-919 (1993). As one later commentator observed, “[L]iberty in the eighteenth century was thought of much more in relation to `negative liberty’; that is, freedom from, not freedom to, freedom from a number of social and political evils, including arbitrary government power.” J. Reid, The Concept of Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution 56 (1988). Or as one scholar put it in 1776, “[T]he common idea of liberty is merely negative, and is only the absence of restraint.” R. Hey, Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty and the Principles of Government § 13, p. 8 (1776) (Hey). When the colonists described laws that would infringe their liberties, they discussed laws that would prohibit individuals “from walking in the streets and highways on certain saints days, or from being abroad after a certain time in the evening, or … restrain [them] from working up and manufacturing materials of [their] own growth.” Downer, A Discourse at the Dedication of the Tree of Liberty, in 1 Hyneman, supra, at 101. Each of those examples involved freedoms that existed outside of government.
Whether we define “liberty” as locomotion or freedom from governmental action more broadly, petitioners have in no way been deprived of it.
Petitioners cannot claim, under the most plausible definition of “liberty,” that they have been imprisoned or physically restrained by the States for participating in same-sex relationships. To the contrary, they have been able to cohabitate and raise their children in peace. They have been able to hold civil marriage ceremonies in States that recognize same-sex marriages and private religious ceremonies in all States. They have been able to travel freely around the country, making their homes where they please. Far from being incarcerated or physically restrained, petitioners have been left alone to order their lives as they see fit.
Nor, under the broader definition, can they claim that the States have restricted their ability to go about their daily lives as they would be able to absent governmental restrictions. Petitioners do not ask this Court to order the States to stop restricting their ability to enter same-sex relationships, to engage in intimate behavior, to make vows to their partners in public ceremonies, to engage in religious wedding ceremonies, to hold themselves out as married, or to raise children. The States have imposed no such restrictions. Nor have the States prevented petitioners from approximating a number of incidents of marriage through private legal means, such as wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.
Instead, the States have refused to grant them governmental entitlements. Petitioners claim that as a matter of “liberty,” they are entitled to access privileges
and benefits that exist solely because of the government. They want, for example, to receive the State’s imprimatur on their marriages — on state issued marriage licenses, death certificates, or other official forms. And they want to receive various monetary benefits, including reduced inheritance taxes upon the death of a spouse, compensation if a spouse dies as a result of a work-related injury, or loss of consortium damages in tort suits. But receiving governmental recognition and benefits has nothing to do with any understanding of “liberty” that the Framers would have recognized.To the extent that the Framers would have recognized a natural right to marriage that fell within the broader definition of liberty, it would not have included a right to governmental recognition and benefits. Instead, it would have included a right to engage in the very same activities that petitioners have been left free to engage in — making vows, holding religious ceremonies celebrating those vows, raising children, and otherwise enjoying the society of one’s spouse — without governmental interference. At the founding, such conduct was understood to predate government, not to flow from it. As Locke had explained many years earlier, “The first society was between man and wife, which gave beginning to that between parents and children.” Locke § 77, at 39; see also J. Wilson, Lectures on Law, in 2 Collected Works of James Wilson 1068 (K. Hall and M. Hall eds. 2007) (concluding “that to the institution of marriage the true origin of society must be traced”). Petitioners misunderstand the institution of marriage when they say that it would “mean little” absent governmental recognition. Brief for Petitioners in No. 14-556, p. 33.
Petitioners’ misconception of liberty carries over into their discussion of our precedents identifying a right to marry, not one of which has expanded the concept of “liberty” beyond the concept of negative liberty. Those precedents all involved absolute prohibitions on private actions associated with marriage. Loving v. Virginia,388 U.S. 1, 87 S.Ct. 1817, 18 L.Ed.2d 1010 (1967), for example, involved a couple who was criminally prosecuted for marrying in the District of Columbia and cohabiting in Virginia, id., at 2-3, 87 S.Ct. 1817.5 They
were each sentenced to a year of imprisonment, suspended for a term of 25 years on the condition that they not reenter the Commonwealth together during that time. Id., at 3, 87 S.Ct. 1817.6 In a similar vein, Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 374, 98 S.Ct. 673, 54 L.Ed.2d 618 (1978), involved a man who was prohibited, on pain of criminal penalty, from “marry[ing] in Wisconsin or elsewhere” because of his outstanding child-support obligations, id., at 387, 98 S.Ct. 673; see id., at 377-378, 98 S.Ct. 673. And Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 107 S.Ct. 2254, 96 L.Ed.2d 64 (1987), involved state inmates who were prohibited from entering marriages without the permission of the superintendent of the prison, permission that could not be granted absent compelling reasons, id., at 82, 107 S.Ct. 2254. In none of those cases were individuals denied solely governmental recognition and benefits associated with marriage.In a concession to petitioners’ misconception of liberty, the majority characterizes petitioners’ suit as a quest to “find … liberty by marrying someone of the same sex and having their marriages deemed lawful on the same terms and conditions as marriages between persons of the opposite sex.” Ante, at 2593. But “liberty” is not lost, nor can it be found in the way petitioners seek. As a philosophical matter, liberty is only freedom from governmental action, not an entitlement to governmental benefits. And as a constitutional matter, it is likely even narrower than that, encompassing only freedom from physical restraint and imprisonment. The majority’s “better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define … liberty,” ante, at 2602, — better informed, we must assume, than that of the people who ratified the Fourteenth Amendment — runs headlong into the reality that our Constitution is a “collection of `Thou shalt nots,'” Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1, 9, 77 S.Ct. 1222, 1 L.Ed.2d 1148 (1957) (plurality opinion), not “Thou shalt provides.”
The majority’s inversion of the original meaning of liberty will likely cause collateral damage to other aspects of our constitutional order that protect liberty.
The majority apparently disregards the political process as a protection for liberty. Although men, in forming a civil society, “give up all the power necessary to the ends for which they unite into society, to the majority of the community,” Locke § 99, at 49, they reserve the authority to exercise natural liberty within the bounds of laws established by that society, id., § 22, at 13; see also Hey §§ 52, 54, at 30-32. To protect that liberty from arbitrary interference, they establish a process by which that society can adopt and enforce its laws. In our country, that process is primarily representative government at the state level, with the Federal Constitution serving as a backstop for that process. As a general matter, when the States act through their representative governments or by popular vote, the liberty of their residents is fully vindicated. This is no less true when some residents disagree with the result; indeed, it seems difficult to imagine any law on which all residents
of a State would agree. See Locke § 98, at 49 (suggesting that society would cease to function if it required unanimous consent to laws). What matters is that the process established by those who created the society has been honored.That process has been honored here. The definition of marriage has been the subject of heated debate in the States. Legislatures have repeatedly taken up the matter on behalf of the People, and 35 States have put the question to the People themselves. In 32 of those 35 States, the People have opted to retain the traditional definition of marriage. Brief for Respondents in No. 14-571, pp. 1a-7a. That petitioners disagree with the result of that process does not make it any less legitimate. Their civil liberty has been vindicated.
Aside from undermining the political processes that protect our liberty, the majority’s decision threatens the religious liberty our Nation has long sought to protect.
The history of religious liberty in our country is familiar: Many of the earliest immigrants to America came seeking freedom to practice their religion without restraint. See McConnell, The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion, 103 Harv. L. Rev. 1409, 1422-1425 (1990). When they arrived, they created their own havens for religious practice. Ibid. Many of these havens were initially homogenous communities with established religions. Ibid. By the 1780’s, however, “America was in the wake of a great religious revival” marked by a move toward free exercise of religion. Id., at 1437. Every State save Connecticut adopted protections for religious freedom in their State Constitutions by 1789, id., at 1455, and, of course, the First Amendment enshrined protection for the free exercise of religion in the U.S. Constitution. But that protection was far from the last word on religious liberty in this country, as the Federal Government and the States have reaffirmed their commitment to religious liberty by codifying protections for religious practice. See, e.g., Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, 107 Stat. 1488, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq.; Conn. Gen.Stat. § 52-571b (2015).
Numerous amici — even some not supporting the States — have cautioned the Court that its decision here will “have unavoidable and wide-ranging implications for religious liberty.” Brief for General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists et al. as Amici Curiae 5. In our society, marriage is not simply a governmental institution; it is a religious institution as well. Id., at 7. Today’s decision might change the former, but it cannot change the latter. It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.
The majority appears unmoved by that inevitability. It makes only a weak gesture toward religious liberty in a single paragraph, ante, at 2607. And even that gesture indicates a misunderstanding of religious liberty in our Nation’s tradition. Religious liberty is about more than just the protection for “religious organizations and persons … as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.” Ibid. Religious liberty is about freedom of action in matters of religion generally, and the scope of that liberty is directly correlated to the civil restraints placed upon religious practice.7
Although our Constitution provides some protection against such governmental restrictions on religious practices, the People have long elected to afford broader protections than this Court’s constitutional precedents mandate. Had the majority allowed the definition of marriage to be left to the political process — as the Constitution requires — the People could have considered the religious liberty implications of deviating from the traditional definition as part of their deliberative process. Instead, the majority’s decision short-circuits that process, with potentially ruinous consequences for religious liberty.
Perhaps recognizing that these cases do not actually involve liberty as it has been understood, the majority goes to great lengths to assert that its decision will advance the “dignity” of same-sex couples. Ante, at 2593-2594, 2599, 2606, 2608.8 The flaw in that reasoning, of course, is that the Constitution contains no “dignity” Clause, and even if it did, the government would be incapable of bestowing dignity.
Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.
The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.
The majority’s musings are thus deeply misguided, but at least those musings can have no effect on the dignity of the persons the majority demeans. Its mischaracterization of the arguments presented by the States and their amici can have no effect on the dignity of those litigants. Its rejection of laws preserving the traditional definition of marriage can have no effect on the dignity of the people who voted for them. Its invalidation of those laws can have no effect on the dignity of the people who continue to adhere to the traditional definition of marriage. And its disdain for the understandings of liberty and dignity upon which this Nation was founded can have no effect on the dignity of Americans who continue to believe in them.
* * *
Our Constitution — like the Declaration of Independence before it — was predicated on a simple truth: One’s liberty, not to
mention one’s dignity, was something to be shielded from — not provided by — the State. Today’s decision casts that truth aside. In its haste to reach a desired result, the majority misapplies a clause focused on “due process” to afford substantive rights, disregards the most plausible understanding of the “liberty” protected by that clause, and distorts the principles on which this Nation was founded. Its decision will have inestimable consequences for our Constitution and our society. I respectfully dissent.