Same-Sex Marriage, Second-Class Citizenship, and Law's Social Meanings

81 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2013

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: January 1, 2011


Government acts, statements, and symbols that carry the social meaning of second-class citizenship may, as a consequence of that fact, violate the Establishment Clause or the constitutional requirement of equal protection. Yet social meaning is often contested. Do laws permitting same-sex couples to form civil unions but not to enter into marriage convey the social meaning that gays and lesbians are second-class citizens? Do official displays of the Confederate battle flag unconstitutionally convey support for slavery and white supremacy? When public schools teach evolution but not creationism, do they show disrespect for creationists? Different audiences reach different conclusions about the meaning of these and other contested acts, statements, and symbols. Accordingly, one needs some method for selecting the relevant audience. No method is perfect, but this Article tentatively advances a "reasonable victim" perspective as the presumptive starting point for constitutional analysis.

Keywords: same-sex marriage, second-class citizenship, state constitutional interpretation, Fourteenth Amendment, LGBT, smoking, religion, Confederate, discrimination, LGBT, social meaning, free speech, constitution, insult

Suggested Citation

Dorf, Michael C., Same-Sex Marriage, Second-Class Citizenship, and Law's Social Meanings (January 1, 2011). Virginia Law Review, Vol. 97, No. 1267, 2011; Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-76. Available at SSRN:

Michael C. Dorf (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States


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