Stephen Engel talks Gay Rights and Dignity in Kroepsch Award Lecture

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As a part of his receiving of the annual Ruth and Robert Kroepsch Award, Associate Professor and Politics Department Chair Stephen Engel was given free reign to lecture on a subject of his choosing. His talk “The Conservative Potential of the Supreme Court’s Gay Rights Jurisprudence, or Why Justice Neil Gorsuch May Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Same-Sex Marriage,” delved deep into some of his biggest focuses in the classroom: constitutional law and LGBT rights.

In his lecture, Engel examined the legal justifications used in major recent LGBT rights cases in the Supreme Court, such as United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges. Ultimately, he concluded that some of the language used in these cases could, seemingly counter intuitively, be used in future cases as groundwork to support more socially conservative causes such as anti-affirmative action laws and opposition to late term abortion rights.

After a brief introduction from Dean of Faculty Margaret Gresh, Engel began his talk with an examination of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s seeming embrace of same-sex marriage, which Gorsuch called “protected by the Constitution,” in his confirmation hearing. Engel believes that Gorsuch may support cases like Windsor and Obergefell because they allow for marriage equality on the basis of the right to “dignity” rather than a “suspect class” justification.

According Engel, the “dignity” argument focuses on the way marriage bans harm LGBT people on an individual basis, rather than viewing them as a collective group who have historically been oppressed, as they be under a “suspect class” justification. In this way, says Engel, cases like Windsor and Obergefell allow for same-sex marriage equality without delving into identity-based policy, making the rulings more conservative than meets the eye.

“Interestingly, Supreme Court Gay Rights jurisprudence since [the 1991 case Clark v.] Roemer have achieved equal rights recognition without relying on suspect class or classification doctrine, and as such may hint at a conservative alternative to the doctrine,” said Engel.

Engel went on to explain how Justices could possibly use the precedent set in these cases, as a result of the dignity justification, in future cases to reach more conservative outcomes. According to Engel, the language of recent marriage equality cases paves the way for something called “suspect classification” in cases, which views any form of identity politics, not just discriminatory laws, as potentially unconstitutional.

“The latter [suspect classification] would treat attempts to remedy discrimination with identity based policy, such as bussing for school integration, as constitutionally suspect,” said Engel.

For the last thirty years, the Kroepsch Award has been given to a Bates faculty member to honor “outstanding performances as teachers. A committee of staff members who have previously won the award decide each new recipient, using written student testimonials and nominations. Testimonials about Engel ranged from more lengthy anecdotes to one student who simply called Engel a “freakin’ genius.”

“With the Kroepsch Award, we honor a colleague whose teaching has changed the way students think and reason and the way they understand themselves,” said Gresh.

The lecture was held on Monday afternoon in the Keck Auditorium, where Engel was greeted with a full audience. As is typical of many Bates events, cookies, pastries and coffee were served beforehand.

 

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