On June 26, 2015 the United States Supreme Court made history with its landmark ruling to uphold marriage equality for gay couples. It is now unconstitutional for any of the 50 states to deny a marriage license to the LGBT community. This is not the first time the courts have adjudicated civil rights to minorities and those on the periphery. The United States has had to battle a long history of legalized discrimination, as with the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Separate but Equal doctrine which forbade racial integration in the public commons. It was not until 1964 that the Supreme Court upheld President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act as a ‘valid exercise of Congressional power.’
While the United States Declaration of Independence endows man with inalienable rights, the courts arbitrate these rights. Unfortunately the principle of equality cannot always be enacted within the scope of its most virtuous form. Institutions are made up of people with varying interpretations of how democratic values impact the nature of society. The social contract we have with one another has always been a source of contest for those with differing interests. Enacting civil rights for African- Americans was not looked at as a fight over principle, but that of politics. History has shown us that legislating rights which are granted by the constitution has always been a challenge.
It is also politics that is shaping conservative reactions to the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. The debating raging throughout the right-wing community is masked as one of principle; that of defending what is understood as the traditional definition of marriage. Christian conservatives believe that their values have been usurped by an illegitimate (man-made) law, which infringes on their (assumed) right to follow customs prescribed in the Old Testament. But values are not always a good measure for administering the law and can lead to the subjugation of those with opposing views or lifestyles. Equality before the law is not an easy task when religious values are deemed an appropriate tool for measuring the norms of a society. The First Amendment of the U.S Constitution may guarantee the separation of church and state, but there are still many people who contest the degree to which religious doctrine can be reflected through national and state bodies.
Right-wing reactions to the Supreme Court’s ruling have cast a long shadow on those who advocate for a progressive definition of the institution of marriage. Here are some of the more extreme examples (fun side note: most on this list are running for 2016 Presidential Elections on the Republican ticket).
– Former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee urged his followers to denounce the “false god of judicial supremacy”
– Texas Senator Ted Cruz said “Yesterday and today were both naked and shameless judicial activism”
– Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal proclaimed the ruling an “all-out assault on Christians’ religious liberty”
– Former Representative Allen West believes marriage equality can lead to civil war
-Senator Lindsey Graham said “No person of faith should ever be forced by the federal government to take action that goes against his or her conscience or the tenets of their religion”
– Milwaukee County sheriff and Tea Partier David Clarke stated on his radio show that the marriage equality ruling means it’s time for a new “revolution” and that “Washington can’t be fixed so you have to deconstruct it”
Why is it that those who identify with the conservative faction of the Republican Party demand that marriage can only be defined as between one man and one woman? What is biblical marriage? Was marriage always considered a ‘holy union’? If one is to look at what is considered customary in the bible, he or she will find many passages that counter current notions of right and wrong. For example (Dt. 22: 13-21) says that if a bride is not a virgin then she must be executed and in (Dt. 20:5-7) that women are as chattel, a possession. If these notions of historical values/customs were made into law in the United States, it would go against every developed norm in how modernity understands the rights of women. Why is it different for same-sex couples? Why should we uphold the bible verse forbidding homosexual union but not others?
The concept of marriage has been around since antiquity and has changed throughout time as a societal institution. Our modern view of marriage as a romantic union is actually a new development. Marriage in ancient Mesopotamia was used as a means to preserve power for aristocratic bloodlines and forge alliances with competing empires. This concept made its way into Europe with marriage being utilized as an economic tool. By the 18th century, Enlightenment thinkers started to debate traditional notions of marriage and attempted to push society to value love rather than status as a reason for marrying. In the 20th century there was a dramatic change in the way society viewed romantic relationships as dating became a norm by the 1920s. The women’s rights movement of this time also made a tremendous impact on liberalizing the customary view that women be subordinate to their husbands. By mid-century marriage as an institution of love became the norm. Once love became the defining reason for marriage, it opened the door to new interpretations of what constitutes a family unit.
In the current age, marriage may be understood as a means for expressing love, but it is also a civil contract officiated by the (secular) state which grants couples certain rights and privileges under the law. Marriage in the United States grants tax and government benefits and this is why the Supreme Court ruling is so important. This ruling proves that the definition of marriage is still evolving and is becoming the preeminent symbol of American civil rights.
Culturally, one has the freedom to abide by the customary traditions of a 3,000 year old text. The values people extract from religious doctrine can be fortified in the private lives of individuals but are not compatible with modern concepts of liberty and justice as prescribed in the United States Constitution.