In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Anthony Kennedy focused primarily upon marriage as a "fundamental right" protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As such, the states were required to come up with a strong argument why they could deny it to anyone, let alone gay couples. They couldn't, at least not in the eyes of five of the justices, and the gay marriage bans were struck down.
Justice Kennedy didn't totally limit his reasoning to the due process question of rights, however. He did specifically reference the doctrine of equal protection - also required by the Fourteenth Amendment - and said that it and due process are tied together, based on similar principles of liberty and freedom and both protective of dignity and autonomy.
But many observers have criticized Obergefell for focusing too heavily on fundamental rights and not enough on equal protection.
That's where Arkansas comes in. There, as in most states that I'm aware of, it is customary for the male spouse of a mother to appear on her child's birth certificate. It happens automatically, regardless of whether the husband is really the biological father of the child. There is no distinction for cases of adultery or artificial insemination. If you're a husband and your wife has a child, your name goes on the birth certificate. End of story.
But that wasn't the case for same-sex spouses in Arkansas. If a woman gives birth there and is married to a woman, her spouse's name didn't go on the birth certificate. Her spouse was not automatically considered the parent of the child - at least when it comes to documenting the birth.
Two couples challenged this rule. They won at the trial court level, but the Arkansas Supreme Court, considering the scope of Obergefell, found that the birth certificate rule "pass[es] constitutional muster" and upheld it.
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court summarily reversed that conclusion in Pavan v. Smith, an anonymous "per curiam" opinion. Why? Because Obergefell held that same-sex couples are entitled to "the constellation of benefits that the State has linked to marriage" on "the same terms and conditions" as different-sex couples. In other words, those couples are entitled to equal protection.
"Disparate treatment" is an equal protection term for discrimination. It doesn't get any clearer than that: Obergefell prohibits treating same-sex couples differently than different-sex couples when the state is doling out various "rights, benefits, and responsibilities" of marriage, including the presumption of parentage to the spouse of the birth mother. If husbands who are not biological fathers are entitled to be listed, then wives who are non-biological mothers must be listed. Simple enough.
But it apparently isn't that simple to Justices Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito. Gorsuch, writing for them all, argued in dissent that summary reversals such as Pavan are only allowed when "the law is settled and stable...and the decision below is clearly in error," and this is not such a case.
Why? Well, first because there is no "constitutional problem with a biology based birth registration regime" standing alone (an overly simplistic conclusion based primarily on the sharply divided plurality decision of Michael H. v. Gerald D.). Second, the plaintiffs didn't directly challenge the artificial insemination provision of the law, just the general rule about "husbands" that excluded same-sex wives, so there was no reason for the Court to cite it as a reason for reversal. And third, the wife who is left off the birth certificate initially can simply adopt the child later and get added that way.
Finally, Gorsuch says that Arkansas conceded before them that the artificial insemination rule, 9-10-201, would apply equally to same-sex spouses and thus there was not really a controversy for the court to resolve:
Thus, Gorsuch says, "it is not even clear what the Court expects to happen on remand that hasn't happened already." After all, Arkansas was going to list the mothers on the birth certificates anyway. This is much ado about nothing, or at least much ado about the wrong statute.*
But to me, the majority's view is more compelling. The rule that the plaintiffs challenged - the general requirement that a male spouse's name should appear on the birth certificate regardless of actual paternity, but not a female spouse's name, is discriminatory on its face. It treats same-sex and different-sex married couples differently. Under Obergefell, that's not allowed.
I am glad that six members of the Court took the opportunity to give Obergefell some equal protection teeth, especially as states and cities continue to try creative (and hateful) end runs around it. For example, the Texas Supreme Court is still considering whether Houston can deny marital benefits to municipal employees based on the sex of their spouse. Hopefully they will seriously consider Pavan and rule consistently with it.
*Update: As Mark Stern at Slate documents, Justice Gorsuch's recitation of the facts in the case is totally incorrect. Arkansas never conceded that it would list the birth mother's female spouse on the birth certificates. And it made no sense for the plaintiffs to challenge the artificial insemination rule because they didn't want to overturn it, they referenced it in support of their argument that the rule they did challenge - the rule limiting the naming of spouses to "husband" - was pointlessly discriminatory in violation of Obergefell. All of this suggests Gorsuch's opinion is fraught with errors that should be corrected.