Clippings: Same-sex unions have stood test
About a decade ago, former Independent colleague Jeff Inglis stopped in and handed me a copy of one of my old Clippings columns. Jeff said he found it in Vermont Supreme Court records while researching that court’s 1999 ruling that Vermont must allow same-sex couples the “same benefits and protections afforded by Vermont law to married opposite-sex couples.”
That ruling led to Vermont’s landmark 2000 civil union law. Nine years later Vermont lawmakers legalized same-sex marriages, part of a growing trend: Prior to July’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex unions nationwide, same-sex marriage had already become the law in 37 states.
Despite warnings to the contrary, since Vermont’s civil union and marriage votes, the Earth still orbits around the sun, no one has been harmed by the falling sky, and the institution of marriage seems to be thriving, at least judging by the number of bridal magazines, wedding expos, and melodramatic dress selection shows on Bravo.
As for that Clippings column, it dated back to 1996, and was titled, “Marriage bill is indefensible.” The lawyers who argued the marriage case before the Vermont Supreme Court introduced it as evidence, Jeff said. In it I argued against the misleadingly titled Defense of Marriage Act, or “DOMA.”
That shameful law (one Hillary Clinton would surely like to forget, Rep. Bernie Sanders voted against, and President Bill Clinton signed), forbade the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and providing benefits to couples even if they were legally married under state laws.
My argument against DOMA was that it denied citizens a “basic American principle — equality in front of the law.”
It took 19 years since DOMA passed and that column, but five of nine U.S. Supreme Court justices on June 26 decided, at least in part, the 14th Amendment might apply to same-sex marriage.
Here’s the meat of Section 1 of that amendment:
“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
It’s hard to say what four Supreme Court justices found hard to understand about “nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Now, I won’t pretend the Clippings soapbox made much of an impact in this whole process, but am glad to see a tipping point has been reached.
“Modern Family” TV actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who is gay and is portrayed on that show in a committed long-term same-sex relationship, including a marriage this past season, makes a good case in a recent Entertainment Weekly magazine that nuanced portrayals of LGBTQ characters on TV have probably made a difference. He lists shows like “Will and Grace” and “Ellen.”
More citizens coming out — and thus having their friends and family members realizing they already know and love LGBTQ people — has probably made more of an impact. A happy momentum has been generated.
There has been backlash, sadly. Some argue the fact that all citizens are now equal under marriage law — which is, at heart, a contract that includes rights of survivorship, Social Security benefits, tax breaks, hospital visitation and more — infringes on their religious rights.
Well, here, in part, is another founding federal document: “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion.”
This is a essentially a two-part issue. First, a law cannot be established to “respect” a religion. The law comes first. Laws are civil matters. Marriage, while often conflated with religion, is a bundle of civil rights. Those rights cannot be confused with specific religious dogma, be it Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish or Shinto.
Arguing against same-sex marriage from a religious standpoint is not relevant; the civil authority that grants religious licenses is the state’s — it does not belong to a church, mosque, synagogue or temple.
Secondly, all citizens absolutely retain the right to their religious beliefs. Those who do not believe in same-sex marriages may choose not to get one and join a religious organization that does not believe in sanctioning them.
Religious groups may not be compelled to perform them or allow them to be performed in their sanctuaries. The state’s permitting of same-sex marriages thus does not impede the free exercise of religion.
But public servants operate in a different sphere. They must follow the law. If a county or municipal clerk is morally or religiously opposed to issuing marriage licenses, he or she is free to follow his or her conscience and find a new job. They take oaths to follow the law. Clerks are free to exercise their religion, but may not deny citizens rights because of that religion.
The laws on businesses owners who claim their religious beliefs will not allow them to serve a same-sex clientele remain murkier. I would hope the law will come down on the side of respect for civil rights, and in the meantime that no one will harass those who disagree.
After all, the religious issue is a short-term distraction. History will move forward: In 2001, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans opposed same-sex marriage, 57-35 percent. In 2015, the percentages had flipped: Americans backed same-sex marriage, 57-39 percent.
It looks like the gap will widen: Among those born after 1981, 73 percent support same-sex marriage rights. Truly, it’s time for America simply to embrace one of the nation’s founding principles: equality for all.
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