SCOTUS dumps DOMA: fair, simple, American

Brown v. Board of Education; United States v. Windsor: do they belong together?  Yes they do: today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Windsor case is just that historic.  In a very specific and non-technical way Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion makes clear what the 5-4 court ruling says the Constitution requires: the “[Defense of Marriage Act] is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.”  You can read the professional reports on the decisions announced today here and here, and elsewhere, but here’s my take:

All people deserve equal treatment under the law.  If the federal government grants certain legal privileges to dual-sex couples who are legally married under the laws of their state, the same privileges must be available to single-sex couples who are legally married under the laws of their state.  Equal treatment; fairness.  The court did not rule on the constitutionality of gay marriage today; it ruled on an issue of equality before the law.  In refusing to rule on the Hollingsworth case regarding California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in the state, it sidestepped ruling one way or another on the constitutionality of gay marriage…perhaps another day.  But that decision does have the effect of re-legalizing gay marriage in California, making it state #13.

In practical terms the Windsor ruling means same-sex couples should be treated the same way as opposite-sex couples when it comes to federal tax law and Social Security and insurance and immigration, all that federal stuff.  In fact there are more than a thousand benefits coming into play here, and McClatchy does a good job summarizing that here.  And for fun, TV Guide summarizes the celebrity reaction to the rulings here.

This is not about what one religion or another teaches about homosexuality; this is about how the civil law treats American citizens regardless of their religious belief, or their gender or their race or national origin.  A religion is free to believe and teach what it wants about the morality of homosexual behavior or same-sex marriage, and its teachings and laws are important to the members in good standing of that particular faith.  But those teachings are not binding on Americans who are not members of that denomination.  The civil law, which orders how we all deal with one another in the secular society outside the confines of our many private clubs, is blind to such moral questions.  States have the right to decide who can “marry” and who can’t, and the federal government has to treat all “married” couples in the same way, regardless of the gender of the spouses.  Simple, really.  Fair.  American.  Congratulations, U.S.A., on another successful day at the office.

Gay marriage news, the Anglo-American edition

It was only in passing that I mentioned last month’s election results that put another four states on the side of the angels in the fight to legalize gay marriage. There’s been an important development since then: the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments in two cases on the issue, opening the possibility of a legal precedent that will apply to every state in the union.

Supporters of giving same-sex couples the right to marry are enthused, since this decision comes in relatively close proximity to (1) President Obama announcing his support for gay marriage, (2) another appeals court overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (Windsor v. United States), and (3) people in more states voting in favor of same-sex unions. Emily Bazelon writes in Slate with some great background on the two cases themselves, and offers a warning: don’t assume that because four justices agreed to hear the cases that there are five of them who will rule in favor of gay marriage. Conventional wisdom has it that the court follows the people, but I’m trying not to get overly optimistic: it could be that the justices who said yes to taking up the matter are predisposed to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act or to defer to states on the whole thing…and 39 of them have outlawed gay marriage either by statute or in their constitutions.

I wish we could get some of those states, or Congress, to think about this issue in the way Britain’s government proposes: legalize same-sex marriage in civil law, and make the clear stipulation that religions which object cannot be forced to perform gay weddings.

Face it: most of the objection to same-sex marriage in our country claims a basis in religious teaching. I sympathize with people who are afraid that legalizing a practice condemned by their religion would somehow infringe on their own religious freedom, although I don’t think that would happen in this case. But the core issue as I see it is not one of religious freedom, it’s a question of equal protection under the law. To try to put it simply, it’s not fair that only some citizens can enjoy the benefits of being married under law; if it’s OK for some it must be OK for all, assuming it doesn’t hurt society at large. And let’s don’t get sidetracked on age limits—we already prohibit minors from entering contracts—or possible plural marriages or bigamies, which might be seen to have built-in disincentives and punishments. (Remember the old joke—what’s the penalty for bigamy?  Two wives.)

Think of any given religion as a private club: no one of us is required to join that club but we each have the freedom to do so, and those who do join should be prepared to follow the club’s rules. If one club’s rules prohibit same-sex marriage, that is the club’s prerogative; but the rules of any one club or other are not binding on those of us who didn’t join the club.

The civil law is what’s binding on everyone in the civil arena, and it must be applied equally and fairly to all. The British plan makes it clear that each club/religion retains the right to apply its own rules to its members while inside its clubhouse, but that there is a civil law applicable on the broader scale to the rest of society regardless of the rules inside Club A or Club B.

So, there’s a lot to keep an eye out for on this issue, what with the courts and the lawmakers getting involved. There’s one more front, too, but in this case there’s a possibility that America’s emerging embrace of same-sex marriage, and perhaps of homosexuality in general, could have unintended and disastrous consequences. I refer, of course, to Choire Sicha’s discovery of just how gay marriage could lay waste to the quaint vacation industry:

Yes, America will have to rise up against the menace of bearded gay schoolteacher couples who like to weekend and all those inn-going lesbians with lawyers. With the end of small businesses in America, we’ll just go state-by-state and repeal these gay marriages and everything will be fine. That’s exactly how this will shake out.

It’s the right thing to do…and now we have data!

Today’s the day we can celebrate the first anniversary of the demise of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that pushed 13,000 homosexual soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines out of the armed forces of our country and forced untold thousands of others to lie about their sexual orientation in order to continue to serve.  How has the republic fared?

You’ll recall that some opponents of the repeal warned of dire consequences should we choose to stop discriminating against homosexuals who wanted to serve their country; well OK, let’s assess the fallout now, a year removed from the heat of the moment.  Nathaniel Frank today in Slate:

During the debate over “don’t ask, don’t tell”—which ended one year ago this week—Sen. John McCain insisted that ending the gay ban would do “great damage” to the military, and the commandant of the Marine Corps said it could “cost Marines’ lives.” One think-tanker agreed that we’d be taking “a risk with our lives, property and freedom.” Another declared breathlessly that, “ultimately all of civilian life will be affected.” Then there was the dire prediction that one-quarter of the military, or 500,000 troops, might quit in protest.


A new UCLA study, which I co-authored with other academics including military professors from all four U.S. military service academies, has assessed whether ending the gay ban has indeed harmed the armed forces. It hasn’t. Our conclusion is that ending the policy “has had no negative impact on overall military readiness or its component parts: unit cohesion, recruitment, retention, assaults, harassment or morale.”


But we found we could go beyond that: We can also report that after the military ended the gay ban, the institution itself improved, and not just for gay people but for the overall force. Lifting the ban, we found, improved the ability of the military to do its job by removing needless barriers to peer bonding, effective leadership and discipline.

Surprised?  I’m not.  I did then and do now have confidence in the Pentagon’s ability to carry out its orders; I did then and do now have faith that most American men and women, in and out of the armed forces, believe in the American values of equality, fairness and tolerance; I did then and do now believe that the remaining barriers of prejudice are best overcome by exposure to the unknown.

And I believe that ending policies and practices that discriminate against homosexuals will have the same effect in other areas of life as it’s had for the military, because I believe most American men and women, despite the teachings of some religions to the contrary, know in their hearts that it’s the right thing to do.

Mark your civil rights calendar: the gay marriage issue could get to the Supreme Court before the end of the current term.