“The laws of our land are catching up to the fundamental truth that millions of Americans hold in our hearts: When all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free.” – President Barack Obama
The president’s comments, of course, followed Wednesday’s decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act while also paving the way for restoration of marriage rights to same-sex couples in California. Both are major victories for gay-rights advocates, even though the high court did not issue a sweeping ruling to extend gay-marriage rights nationwide.
The invalidation of the DOMA provision will allow married same-sex couples to receive the same federal tax, health and pension benefits as heterosexual married pairs. That’s more than 1,000 benefits previously not afforded to gay couples. It’s not everything advocates had hoped for, but it’s a great leap forward nonetheless.
It didn’t take a constitutional scholar to recognize that the section in DOMA cast aside by the court was unconstitutional, in that it clearly was an affront to the guarantee of equal treatment under the law. But with the obvious politicization of the current court, nothing was certain. In the end, though, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a frequent “swing vote,” joined the panel’s four liberal justices and penned the majority opinion.
Said Kennedy, “Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways. … The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.”
Some believe this decision lays the groundwork for a future ruling that could expand gay-marriage rights nationwide. In the meantime, advocates will continue their state-by-state fight, looking to build on the 13 states (again including California) and the District of Columbia, which now permit gay marriages. Clearly, it will be easier in some states than in others, and it’s nearly certain that marriage rights will never be extended to all 50 states unless the Supreme Court rules it so.
But that’s a fight for another day, and the forces of equality certainly have earned a brief respite to celebrate what they have accomplished thus far.
We would be remiss if we did not note that there are millions of Americans for whom these rulings were a slap in the face, largely on the basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs. To that we would say, all of us are entitled to our own personal religious views, but none among us should be permitted to force the entire nation to subscribe to those beliefs, in the process denying equal rights and protections to our fellow countrymen and women, whether it be because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.
And, as always, there is nothing that compels churches to perform any ceremonies to which they would object, and those who feel the need to do so will have the right, as Americans, to continue their efforts to use their beliefs as a foundation to deny equality to others.
There were times in this nation’s history when customs and laws that we now would find abhorrent – women as second-class citizens, black Americans as slaves – were defended by those in positions of power, and in some cases justified by people relying on their religious texts. Those battles for equality and freedom were won, and we hope that the current fight by gay-rights activists will find similar success in the very near future. As the president so eloquently noted, our whole country will be better for it.