BETWEEN THE LINES: The Supreme Court gaveth a day after it tooketh away.
Less than 24 hours after the Supreme Court invalidated part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it — sort of — righted justice by an identical 5-4 margin when it ruled the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional and affirmed equal protection to same-sex couples and their families in states that legislate it. As a result, same-sex married couples are now entitled to the rights and benefits, such as Social Security, that are guaranteed to married heterosexual couples.
The vote came, coincidentally, just a couple of days before the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots that erupted in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan, which sparked the establishment of the Gay Liberation Front and drew attention to the oppression of gays, a turning point in gay rights history.
The decision noted that DOMA created and endorsed a two-tier system that basically designated same-sex couples “as second class” citizens, which violated their Fifth Amendment right to equal protection.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is regularly viewed as a swing vote, wrote for the majority that DOMA is a stigma for those “who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states.”
DOMA established the legal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. It went into effect in 1996 when President Bill Clinton, who, as he campaigned for reelection, reluctantly signed the legislation that barred same-sex couples whose marriages were recognized by their home state from receiving benefits available to other married couples under federal law. Clinton has since come out in support of same-sex marriage and civil rights for gays and lesbians.
The ruling will have a tremendous impact for married same-sex couples in the 12 states and the District of Columbia that officially recognize such unions. More than a thousand federal laws give benefits linked to marital status, and now same-sex couples in states that have legalized it are now also eligible.
Although a recent New York Times/CBS poll indicated a majority of Americans and some religious groups support same-sex marriage, there are still millions of bigots who will continue to challenge marriage equality.
Even before celebrations of the monumental ruling got underway across the nation, the usual suspects opposed to same-sex marriage expressed their dissatisfaction. As hundreds of supporters out-shouted adversaries of the ruling in front of the Supreme Court, the head of the National Organization for Marriage said his organization will continue “to battle against equal marriage rights for gay couples.”
Another instant response came from one of the right’s most irritating voices, Minnesota Republican and Tea Party darling Michelle Bachmann, who issued a statement that read in part, “not even a Supreme Court, can undo what a holy God has instituted… The court action will undermine the best interest of children and the best interests of the United States.”
Some Christian groups, Bible thumpers and others will indeed continue to lobby state legislators against supporting same-sex marriage, as they echo their hackneyed cry that it will “spoil the moral fabric of our nation.”
Barack Obama, the first president to openly support same-sex marriage, added his delight for the decision: “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.”
New York became the fifth state to rule in favor of marriage equality two years ago, just days before the celebration of the nation’s independence, so, with July 4 on the horizon, I restate and revise some of the words I wrote then: it’s gratifying that same-sex marriage has been sanctioned — though some Americans will never accept the homosexual way of life or federal recognition of same sex marriages.
As the milestone legislation takes effect, every American, regardless of gender, will be entitled to the cherished equality sought and attained by our Founding Fathers.
For a nation that prides itself on freedom and independence, some Americans are appallingly bigoted, particularly when it comes to homosexuality, which is merely a private behavior that has no public consequences.
The debate to guarantee same-sex marriages rights is not over. There is certainly a lot more work that must be done to guarantee that gays and lesbians will be treated equally on a national scale.
Now Congress has to embrace and pass the Respect for Marriage Act that would comprehensively repeal the repugnant and discriminatory residual aspects of the Defense of Marriage legislation. The Supreme Court’s ruling is a refreshing, albeit, long-awaited development towards that end. Nonetheless, the gay and lesbian communities must continue to fight for unequivocal equality and dignity.
The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the strongest supporters of same-sex marriage, said the battle now reverts back to the 38 states that define marriage as between one man and one woman “…legislature by legislature, governor by governor, constitutional amendment by constitutional amendment.”
Little by little our nation’s laws are catching up to the fundamentals fashioned by our Founding Fathers that millions of Americans highly value: all Americans are treated equally, no matter who they are or who they love.
The Supreme Court’s decision ends a particular discrimination against gays and lesbians and, as we prepare to celebrate our 237th birthday, gives a little more impact to the phrase: Liberty and Justice for all.
Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.
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