Stand by for American history

The United States Supreme Court hears arguments this week in two cases involving same-sex marriage that could make civil rights history.  For those who can get beyond a knee-jerk reaction to the very idea of same-sex marriage, who are interested in the nuts and bolts of how the court operates, how this court operates, who want to be able to read the reports of the oral arguments or listen to the arguments themselves (yes, listen—the same day!) critically and develop their own insight into what’s happening and what the results may be, check out Emily Bazelon’s post in Slate today.

Tuesday and Wednesday, the Supreme Court will dive into back-to-back arguments about gay marriage. These cases that are probably the biggest of the term, and certainly the sexiest. First up is an hour of Hollingsworth v. Perry, the suit challenging the constitutionality of California’s voter-approved gay marriage ban. Next comes an hour and 50 minutes on United States v. Windsor, which takes on the definition of marriage in the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That definition—the union of a man and a woman—denies gay couples more than 1,000 federal benefits that come with marriage, relating to everything from inheritance taxes to health insurance for veterans, even when their marriages are legally recognized in the states they live in.

The arguments will feature top lawyers including Ted Olson (former Bush solicitor general, pro-gay marriage), Paul Clement (former Bush solicitor general, anti-gay marriage), Donald Verrilli Jr. (Obama solicitor general, pro-gay marriage, though the Obama administration is still enforcing DOMA), and Vicki Jackson (Harvard law professor who will argue that the Obama administration doesn’t belong in court). What should we watch for to gauge how these cases will come out? Here’s my checklist.

Meanwhile, in case you missed it, here are the stories about the amicus briefs from the White House and Bill Clinton,  now both in favor despite earlier efforts to the contrary, and from major businesses that have always tried assiduously to avoid taking sides on anything as controversial as same-sex marriage, but now argue that the ban hurts business.  Even prominent Republicans, including Clint Eastwood, are making a case in favor of same-sex marriage.  The times, they are a-changin’…we should find out in June, when the decisions are expected to be announced, just how much.

America moves one step closer to gay marriage rights, and the silence from opponents speaks volumes

Today a panel of a federal appeals court in California ruled that state’s Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution approved by voters in 2008 to outlaw gay marriage, is an unconstitutional violation of the right to equal protection under the law.  The appeals panel agreed with the federal district court decision which found marriage to be a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution, and that there has to be a good reason to limit the exercise of that right to only certain people—in this case, one-man-and-one-woman couples.

Although the Constitution permits communities to enact most laws they believe to be desirable, it requires that there be at least a legitimate reason for the passage of a law that treats different classes of people differently. There was no such reason that Proposition 8 could have been enacted.

(snip)

All that Proposition 8 accomplished was to take away from same-sex couples the right to be granted marriage licenses and thus legally to use the designation of “marriage,” which symbolizes state legitimization and societal recognition of their committed relationships.  Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California…

The ruling was limited in scope and does not address whether “same-sex couples may ever be denied the right to marry.”  The court found that since “California had already extended to committed same-sex couples both the incidents of marriage and the official designation of ‘marriage,’ and Proposition 8’s only effect was to take away that important and legally significant designation, while leaving in place all of its incidents,” the court was able to rule on Proposition 8’s constitutionality without need to address the larger issue.  But that is the grounds where the ultimate appeal will be argued.  Supporters of this discriminatory and downright uncharitable proposition have the choice of appealing the case to either the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit or the United States Supreme Court; since that’s where we know the case is going to have to go eventually, I say let’s get on with it.

I’ll continue to argue that there is no good reason for gay people to be treated differently than straight people under the law when it comes to the exercise of the fundamental right to marry, or in fact the exercise of any fundamental civil right.  Various religions may restrict their rites and sacraments among their members according to their beliefs, but civil law protects the rights of all Americans and there’s no room for exceptions that serve only to salve the theological objections of one religion or another.  That’s what the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is all about: no restrictions on an individual’s religious practice, but no religion’s law takes precedence in civil life.

Many of the voices opposed to gay marriage claim to believe they are protecting “family values” or “conservative values.”  Fine; I take them at their word.  What I’m arguing in favor of are American values: equality; liberty; fairness; tolerance; justice.  The argument was made most persuasively by the plaintiffs’ attorneys in this case, Republican Ted Olson and Democrat David Boies.  In August 2010, when the federal district court overturned Proposition 8, Olson made the case so clearly in a discussion with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday.  Click here to look at the clip and read the transcript.

We do not put the Bill of Rights to a vote….We ask judges to make sure that when we vote for something we’re not depriving minorities of their constitutional rights.

(snip)

…we have a 14th Amendment that guarantees equal rights to all citizens. It’s not judicial activism when judges do what the Constitution requires them to do, and they follow the precedent of previous decisions of the Supreme Court.

(snip)

If 7 million Californians were to decide that we should have separate but equal schools, or that we would send some of our citizens to separate drinking fountains, or have them be in the back of the bus, that would be unconstitutional.

(snip)

…we believe that a conservative value is stable relationships and a stable community and loving individuals coming together and forming a basis that is a building block of our society, which includes marriage…We also believe that it’s an important conservative value to sustain the rights of liberty of our citizens and to eliminate discrimination on invidious bases, whether it’s race, or sex or sexual orientation. It should be a liberal and a conservative value. It is a fundamental American value.

As I’ve argued before, the tide has turned.  Homosexuals serve openly in the armed forces; more states have legalized marriage between two people of the same sex, and are giving up efforts to stop gay people from adopting children; and now, when One Million Moms (hardly…it’s the American Family Association) calls on J.C. Penney to drop Ellen DeGeneres as its spokeswoman because she is openly gay, even Bill O’Reilly thinks it’s a McCarthy-esque “witch hunt”!  Surely, the times they are a-changing.

Equal justice for all: the gay rights tide has turned

The fight to keep homosexual Americans from enjoying the full rights of citizenship is over; the opposition is giving up.  A federal judge has enjoined the Pentagon from enforcing the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy anywhere in the world, and the expected reaction to that news was…nowhere to be heard.

Sure, hard-core haters had their say, but I’m struck by just how quiet it has been.  At the risk of fanning the flames, I’d say it looks like the usual suspects in the anti-gay effort have finally run out of steam, perhaps because it’s so clear that courts are going to enforce the Constitutional protections that have been denied to homosexuals.

First, the DADT (ugh!) policy is a crock and it should be repealed; it should never have been imposed.  Was anyone really in favor of a regulation that permitted gays to remain in the service unless they were discovered?  How in any important way is that any different than the old system, where gays were discharged when they were discovered?

The law’s days are clearly numbered.  Although the Justice Department asked the judge not to halt enforcement of the law while it prepares an appeal, the president has promised to get rid of the law—and Congress almost did so earlier this year!

The secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs favor repeal of DADT, but they want to go slow.   Excuse me, gents—why?  Because it would force an immediate change to benefits or buildings, or protocols for social events?  That’s why you want to wait until an internal review is completed, in a month a half?  Really?

I never understood the argument that allowing gay people in the service to be open about their sexuality would hurt morale (and hurt it even worse in time of war, or wars).  I don’t believe that most men and women in the armed forces are so closed-minded and prejudiced on this topic, because I don’t think most Americans outside the military are, either.

Think about the reality of the situation: if DADT has legally cleared the way for gays to serve since 1993, then people in the military have had at least since then to get used to the idea that gays are there: to get used to the idea that they don’t leer at you in the shower or rape you in your bed, at least not in any greater numbers than heterosexuals do those things; to get used to fighting next to them in a shooting war, and to know that they can be brave and trustworthy comrades, at least to the same extent that heterosexuals can be.

We can proclaim not to understand why people are homosexual, or embrace a religious belief that homosexual activity is a sin, but none of that matters in a tolerant, secular, civil society.  The experts can’t say why a person is sexually attracted to one gender or the other.  And it violates the rights of due process and free speech guaranteed to each American in the Constitution to treat someone differently because of their sexual orientation just as it would to treat them differently because of their gender or their ancestry. 

The tide has turned.  Homosexual activity is no longer illegal.  If you read or watch Ted Olson’s argument as presented on Fox News in August, the same argument he made in the California court case, you can see that the case for gay marriage will prevail.  States are giving up trying to stop homosexuals from adopting children.  Republican political strategists recognize that opposing gay rights is a long-term losing proposition.  One officer discharged under DADT has successfully sued to be reinstated in the Air Force.

You don’t have to “understand” gay people any more than you have to “understand” people of a different race or a different religion.  You only have to understand that these people are Americans like you, who believe in American rights like you do, who want to enjoy American freedoms like you do, who support our country with their work and their taxes like you do, and who want the opportunity to serve to protect this way of life, just like you do.