Equal protection: it’s what we do here at the ol’ USA

The first time I wrote about gay marriage rights here was more than four and half years ago  (“Equal justice for all: the gay rights tide has turned,” Oct. 15, 2010) and the kernel of the argument was already formed:

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.

(snip)

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…

This week, history: a 5-4 decision from the Supreme Court of the United States in Obergefell v Hopkins takes its place alongside the great civil rights and civil liberties decisions of American jurisprudence.  The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of all Americans to civil marriage, and all its advantages and protections, be they heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual.  As far as the civil law is concerned this isn’t about sex: it’s about equal treatment under the law.

Homosexual conduct is no longer a civil crime in this country, and thus is no reason to withhold the full rights and exercise of citizenship from homosexuals.  Homosexual conduct is objectionable within many organized religions, to be sure, and virtually all of the opposition to extending the right to marry to gays and lesbians has come on religious grounds.  For the most part I don’t question the sincerity of that religious belief (although it would be prudent to account for the cynical exploiters, primarily from the political realm).

But that’s beside the crucial point, which is that, in this country, civil law is not answerable to religious law.  The First Amendment guarantees that we each and all get the freedom to practice our religions, but also guarantees that none of those religions wields authority directly over civil society.  The Constitution protects us from any majority that would try to force one or another religious doctrine onto everyone—because the Constitution takes religious liberty for all just that seriously—and guarantees that all men and women deserve equal treatment under law.  Despite the nearly hysterical dissenting opinions of some of his colleagues, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision didn’t create a new right; it reminded us about a right that’s been there all along…and my friend Mr. Jefferson recognized the rationale by which Kennedy connected the dots (and Peter Foster of the Daily Telegraph reminded via the Twitterverse) long ago:

Obergefell does not mean that First Amendment protections of religious liberties are at risk, despite what you’ve heard.  Some of that reaction is well-intentioned misinformation; most is hot air from right-wing politicians and conservative religious extremists who need a boogieman to scare their supporters into donating money.  (I’m looking at you, Governor Abbott—thanks, Evan Smith for the Tweet-tip.)  In either case, they are wrong.  Religious organizations are exempt from this ruling, as they are exempt from many other laws, like, say, tax laws.  As Lisa Falkenberg put it in this morning’s Houston Chronicle, this ruling has no applicability to individuals in their private lives or to private religious institutions: “It does not keep anyone from judging, or hating, or even just politely refusing to acknowledge gay people.  No court ruling has ever told a pastor whose wedding he or she can bless.  That hasn’t changed.”

It is possible to believe in the religious sacrament of marriage and still accept this court’s decision on civil marriage rights for homosexuals.  Michigan Representative Justin Amash, a Tea Party/Libertarian/Republican, made the point quite nicely this week on Facebook:

Throughout history, different cultures have defined marriage according to their own customs and practices. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists do not share identical views on marriage. In fact, significant differences regarding marriage exist even within Christianity.

What makes marriage traditional is not its adherence to a universal definition but rather that it is defined by personal faith, not by government. For thousands of years, marriage flourished without a universal definition and without government intervention. Then came licensing of marriage. In recent decades, we’ve seen state legislatures and ballot initiatives define marriage, putting government improperly at the helm of this sacred institution.

Those who care about liberty should not be satisfied with the current situation. Government intervention in marriage presents new threats to religious freedom and provides no advantages, for gay or straight couples, over unlicensed (i.e., traditional) marriage. But we shouldn’t blame the Supreme Court for where things stand.

To the extent that Americans across the political spectrum view government marriage as authoritative and unlicensed marriage as quaint, our laws must treat marriage—and the corresponding legal benefits that attach—as they would any other government institution. So, while today’s Supreme Court opinion rests upon the false premise that government licensure is necessary to validate the intimate relationships of consenting adults, I applaud the important principle enshrined in this opinion: that government may not violate the equal rights of individuals in any area in which it asserts authority. (emphasis added)

The civil right of marriage is open to all Americans.  We must be diligent about making sure that the implementation of this decision protects the First Amendment rights of those with a religious objection to same-sex marriage, keeping in mind that it doesn’t give them the right to ignore the law.  And while we’re at it we should work on getting rid of the laws which still permit discrimination against gay Americans in the areas of housing and hiring and other aspects of day to day life, and any other laws that violate anyone’s right to equal treatment.  Because we’re Americans, and that’s what we do.

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No news is actually excellent news

It’s not that nothing happened…but today, when the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States decided not to take up any of the pending cases on same-sex marriage, as they were expected to, the decision not to decide—at least not yet—was another sign that homosexual Americans can look forward an end to legalized discrimination sooner rather than later.  Some of them saw no reason to wait—same-sex marriages started in Virginia within hours of the news this morning.

The decision not to hear arguments in any of the cases where federal appeals courts had in essence ruled in favor of same-sex marriage means that those rulings stand, clearing the way for legal same-sex marriages in as many as 11 more states, bringing the number of states on the right side of history to 30 so far (and don’t forget the District of Columbia!).  Vox.com has a good explainer here of what today’s actions mean, with links to an update on where each state’s court case stands and graphics showing how gay marriage is being recognized in law as the right thing to do even in places where many citizens disagree.  But that’s what courts are for, to enforce law and equity in the face of majority ignorance.

Why did the justices decide as they did?  I don’t know, and the justices are not compelled to explain.  But it means that, for whatever reason or reasons, there weren’t at least four justices who were willing to take one or more of these cases right now.  I’ve read some theories that the court decided not to hear any cases because there was no disagreement: all the pending court cases were in favor of allowing same-sex marriage, so they felt there was no conflict that required their special wisdom to resolve.  The argument goes that once there are one or more cases with the opposite finding, the nation’s highest court will step in; I guess we’ll see if that’s so, but this court’s ruling in Windsor v. United States overturning the Defense of Marriage Act as a deprivation of equal protection under the law should give a good hint what they might say.

I’ve said it before (“SCOTUS dumps DOMA: fair, simple, American”), and I’d like to say it again:

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.

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.

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.

First things first–let’s start with the facts

It is said that there are two things you do not want to see being made: sausage, and legislation.  I’m of the opinion that a third thing on that list should be the news—you don’t want to see how a news story comes into being.  But Tom Goldstein, the publisher of SCOTUSblog.com, wants you to see what happened behind the scenes last month in the national reporting of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act.  In his in-depth post-mortem Goldstein (who has a dog in this fight, to be sure) and his staff pieced together what happened at CNN, Fox News Channel, the White House, and SCOTUSblog.com in the nine minutes between when the court’s decision was handed down and when the error-filled reporting of the decision ended, including how

  • hackers tried to bring down SCOTUSblog
  • the court’s own website failed due to the heavy traffic, so no one outside the court building could access the decision
  • a lack of thoroughness led CNN and Fox to run with incorrect interpretations of the opinion, and
  • people who’d seen those incorrect TV reports refused to believe they were incorrect when confronted with the truth

CNN and Fox News have come in for a lot of deserved criticism for initially reporting the story incorrectly.  Yes, I know they were trying to get it first but so was everyone else, and they waited long enough to understand what the court had ruled before reporting it.  In fact, Bloomberg was first—less than one minute after the chief justice began announcing the decision from the bench—and they got it right!

From what I learned in this piece, I find it disturbing just how much brain power was brought to bear by these two networks that day and still they got it wrong.  Disturbing, but not surprising.  Yes, people make mistakes; but people who care more for flash than for accuracy—for generating heat rather than light—are more likely to make careless mistakes.  Avoiding careless mistakes is—or should be—of paramount importance in this business.

But both CNN and Fox exposed themselves to potential failure by

(a) treating the decision as a breathless “breaking news” event, despite the fact that everyone knew when the opinion was going to be released (and the mandate won’t take effect until 2014), while at the same time

(b) not putting sufficiently sound procedures in place to deal with the potential complications, and

(c) not placing more faith in the consensus view of the wire reports.

To put it another way: read the damn opinion before presuming to tell me what it says.  That shouldn’t be too much to ask, whether reporting a Supreme Court decision or a school board meeting or a fender bender.  Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel suggest that in order “to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing,” which is the purpose of journalism, the journalist’s first obligation is to the truth.  Sometimes that can take more than just a few minutes to learn, but we don’t mind waiting.

Other opinions–