Talk about energy! The Americans United office was suffused with it before and after the two days during which the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases concerning marriage equality.
We had joined with the Anti-Defamation League in filing a friend-of-the-court brief opposing California’s Proposition 8, an amendment that overturned a California Supreme Court decision requiring equal acknowledgment of same-sex and opposite-sex marriages. A second AU/ADL brief opposed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 federal law that prohibits the granting of federal recognition and benefits to same-sex couples even in states where their marriages are legal.
Our arguments were not about privacy; they were about religion as the basis for legislation. As one of the briefs noted, “Religious and moral disapproval has historically been an unsustainable basis for justifying laws disadvantaging minority groups.”
Yet we know such religious disapproval had been used to justify everything from slavery to bans on interracial marriage until the Supreme Court put the kibosh on such analysis as the basis for law.
Indeed, as I have looked at this issue in the past decades, it is hard for me to see any secular argument against marriage equality – and, in fact, some of its opponents don’t even bother to try to find one. Consistently, members of Congress and other elected officials refer to the “sanctity” of traditional marriage or the need to preserve the “sacrament” of marriage.
These are powerful words, and they are religious words. They assume that an arrangement is lawful because it has theological approval, but that is simply the wrong way to make policy in a nation committed to the values of a secular Constitution.
With those briefs filed, our staff had a very visible presence at the court on both days. Rob Boston covered the proceedings from inside the press galley, the small section from which journalists often need to crane their necks around columns in order to see the justices. Americans United employees – and a few former employees – were visible outside the court hoisting signs for Americans United at large and lively demonstrations during both mornings of argument; we got plenty of “thumbs up” responses.
And thanks to the outreach of our Field Department’s Beth Corbin, I was also honored to be asked to speak at the “United for Marriage” rally the day of the DOMA argument. The crowd was a bit larger that second day, and the marriage equality opponents less visible than on the previous day when they had marched down the street with banners supporting “traditional marriage.”
One group there, the American Society for Tradition, Family and Property, actually argues that the Inquisition was not an entirely bad thing; also present was the repugnant Kansas minister Fred Phelps, accompanied by the members of his family who have yet to flee the compound to denounce him. Lots of other Religious Right anti-gay marchers were on hand.
When I spoke that Wednesday morning, I noted that I knew some of the very people gathered in both the pro- and anti-marriage equality camps. Those who are against it are not all haters or bigots. They are, however, all wrong.
I felt the need to say that and to emphasize that we live in a country with a broad range of theological viewpoints but that those are not supposed to be the legislative foundation for legal structures that discriminate against any Americans because of who they are.
I also told a story that got picked up by Legal Times. I mentioned that the previous morning as I was driving into work, I heard an anti-equality speaker on the radio who made a claim that really hit home. He asserted that the “dream” American family is a father, a mother and two children.
That’s interesting. I have been married to my spouse, Joanne, for 42 years; we have two great grown children, one boy, one girl. (We even used to have a dog, recently deceased, and once actually owned a station wagon.) I am a part of the radio guest’s “dream” apparently. It has felt very good.
Well, I was in tears later that morning listening to the dreams of other families, dreams that couldn’t be fulfilled because of the very amendment being debated inside the high court.
Our Americans United participation didn’t end at the court, though. Many of our members participated in local rallies on the same topic. In Philadelphia, activist Janice Rael helped organize a marriage equality vigil outside the James A. Byrne Federal Courthouse. I like to know that our members put their own energetic spin into the causes we fight for in Washington.
Although the Supreme Court may not use religious liberty as the cornerstone of any favorable ruling they may put forth in either case in June, we know that in the hearts of many folks, this is all about whether the faith of one strain of American religion will be the basis for laws that hurt some Americans more than most of us can imagine.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.