Ryan H. Nelson


Marriage Equality and the Third Nail in the “Proceed with Caution” Coffin

Ryan H. Nelson

“We must proceed with caution” remains a clarion call of marriage equality opponents. Courts have previously rejected this argument on two grounds: First, states cannot save an otherwise unconstitutional law by raising the specter of theoretical harms that may run rampant if the law were struck down. And second, such harms are inapplicable in the context of same-sex marriage bans because there is no harm caused by allowing same-sex couples to wed. A number of jurists, most notably Justices Alito and Thomas, nonetheless embrace the “proceed with caution” argument.

To that end, this Essay explains a third reason why the “proceed with caution” argument should fail when the Supreme Court takes up the issue of marriage equality this spring; specifically, a state should not be allowed to proceed with caution unless it explains how it plans on doing so. The states defending their same-sex marriage bans before the Court this spring—Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee—have failed to identify how they plan to proceed with caution. They offer no plans, timetables, or rubrics by which they intend on analyzing the effects of same-sex marriage elsewhere, extrapolating those effects to their states, and taking action as warranted. As these states have presented no such evidence, the Court should reject the “proceed with caution” argument they advance.