Today’s question comes from Marcus, who pointed me to this question from James Nicoll: “Under current US law, can djinn marry humans?” This was apparently inspired by the show I Dream of Jeannie, in which a human marries a genie. The broader issue of inter-species marriage comes up frequently in comics, however. For example, Clark Kent, a non-human Kryptonian, has married Lois Lane, a human. In both cases the true nature of the participants was not public, so the issue didn’t come up directly. But if Clark Kent had been ‘out’ as Superman or if Jeannie had been ‘out’ as a genie, would the marriage have been legally recognized?
Alas, probably not. First, we can consider states that have laws prohibiting same-sex marriage, as they have narrowly defined marriage laws. But even states that allow same-sex marriage do not go so far as to recognize Kryptonian/human or genie/human marriage.
Many US states prohibit same-sex marriage, either by statute or constitutional provision. The exact language varies, but typically some variation of “one man and one woman” is used. Precise definitions of “man” and “woman” are typically not found in state statutes, but the plain meaning of the terms is a male human and a female human, respectively. This can be seen by reference to animal cruelty laws, which delineate humans as separate from other kinds of animals. See, e.g., Code S.C. § 47-1-10(1) (“‘Animal’ means a living vertebrate creature except a homo sapien.”); R.S.Mo. 578.405(2)(1) (“‘Animal’ [means] every living creature, domestic or wild, but not including Homo sapiens”).
At the federal level, 1 U.S.C. § 8 defines “person” to include “every infant member of the species homo sapiens who is born alive at any stage of development.” This is an inclusive rather than exclusive definition (and it’s not specifically about marriage), but it underscores the point that only humans are people. The federal Defense of Marriage Act provides (for now) that “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” Combined with 1 U.S.C. § 8 and the plain meaning of the words, federal law also appears to only contemplate marriage between humans.
While Congress may have the power to grant legal personhood to non-human animals (see Cetacean Community v. Bush, 386 F.3d 1169 (9th Cir. 2004)), it has not done so yet. If non-human animals do not have standing to bring suit in court, then marriage would seem to be right out.
And non-humans could be granted legal personhood without necessarily granting them the right to marry humans. If cetaceans or primates are ever granted personhood, for example, it is incredibly unlikely that a human could marry a dolphin or a chimpanzee. Thus, the fact that an ‘out’ Clark Kent was allowed to become president does not necessarily mean he could legally marry Lois Lane. The Constitution merely requires that the president be “a natural born citizen,” but there are many citizens that are prohibited from marrying who could nonetheless theoretically be elected president (e.g. someone who was mentally incapable of consenting to marriage). It’s about as unlikely as an alien being elected president, but it’s legally possible.
A growing number of states recognize same-sex marriage, but their laws are still framed in terms of humans. For example, Vermont’s law defines marriage as “the legally recognized union of two people.” 15 V.S.A. § 8. Vermont further defines “person” as “any natural person” plus various kinds of legal entities such as corporations. 1 V.S.A. § 128. So once again we can fall back on the fact that non-human animals are not (presently) persons. See, e.g., Cetacean Community, 386 F.3d at 1175-79.
So what does this mean for Jeannie and Tony, Lois and Clark, and other cross-species couples? For starters, their marriages are likely void, and there may also be criminal liability (e.g. fraud). It is possible that the courts could come to the rescue here and recognize genies, Kryptonians, Tamaraneans, etc, as legal persons who have the right (perhaps under Equal Protection) to marry humans. But given the slow progress of marriage equality between humans (Loving v. Virginia was decided in 1967; same-sex marriage is still widely prohibited), this seems like a bit of a stretch.