Gay Marriage: A National AffairWhen the justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled by a 4-3 margin that civil unions fail to grant homosexuals the rights entitled to them by the state constitution, they began an important chapter in the legal and social history of the United States. The SJC should be admired for its adamant conviction to upholding the principles of civil rights upon which the nation was founded, but a true resolution of the gay marriage issue can only occur when the Supreme Court issues a nationwide dictum allowing homosexuals the full benefits of marriage.
Certain gay rights activists have compared the recent struggle for homosexual marriage recognition to the civil rights movement. While the parallel should not be taken too far (advocates have not been jailed or physically attacked by law enforcement during rallies), the legal histories between race and homosexuality in America are indeed striking.
In 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DMA), ultimately claiming that states can decide for themselves whether or not to allow same-sex “marriage” and that for federal purposes, a marriage is only a union between a man and a woman. Thus 1,049 federal marriage benefits, as examined by a congressional panel, became available only to heterosexual couples. The decision was essentially an analog of the policy of popular sovereignty seen leading up to the Civil War, in which states (via popular election) were allowed to choose whether or not to adopt slavery. The U.S. government should have realized not to make the same mistake twice. Not only does Abraham Lincoln’s warning of a house divided still apply, but to claim that separate states and not the national agencies hold jurisdiction over a human right is preposterous.
That law led to the non-uniform policy across the country seen today. Thirty-nine states declared defense of marriage acts of their own, Vermont adopted a civil union policy which grants gays state benefits of marriage but not federal ones, three made registries for same-sex couples that do not necessarily imply any state benefits, and the rest remain undecided. As a result, advocacy groups have tried to go from state to state to overturn bans on same-sex marriages or establish them as legal. The same tactic was taken in the 1950’s by the NAACP when attacking the “separate but equal” policy. Originally, legal teams took districts to court and proved that funding for black schools and white schools were not equal. Realizing that the effort was too exhausting and ineffective, the strategy changed with Brown v. Board of Education, which argued the very constitutionality of separate but equal.
Massachusetts has now made a similar move. By demanding that the state must recognize same-sex unions as marriages, they demand that they receive both state and federal benefits, which runs counter to the federal DMA. This incongruence has already forced the state legislature to debate the issue, but because the ruling runs counter to the federal law, it is not meant to end there. Before all is said and done, the issue should have its day in the highest court in the land, and the fate of same-sex marriages can be decided as one nation.
We applaud the Massachusetts SJC’s ruling for its leadership in the battle of equality and for challenging the traditional views of marriage. This decision serves as a reminder that the definition of marriage, like many things, is not static: in fact, views on what is right and wrong on marriage have changed dramatically. In America’s past, marriages between two people of different faiths, ethnic backgrounds, and races sparked controversy. In fact, many states outlawed interracial marriages until the Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967. Over the years, controversial marriages have become gradually integrated into legal and social frameworks. It is only natural that marriage, like any other social institution, be adaptive as times change.
According to Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, the state constitution “forbids the creation of second-class citizens.” We hope that local lawmakers keep these words in mind as they debate amendments designed to dilute the ruling by allowing only civil unions. By preventing homosexual couples from marrying, we wrongly continue to subject some members of society to a second-class status. The SJC has paved the way for progress by confronting this injustice and upholding the rights of all our citizens, and it is time for the Supreme Court to follow suit.