It’s Official: Same-Sex Couples in the U.S. have a Constitutionally Protected Right to Marriage!
This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court reminded us that America is a nation founded upon the principle of equality. With immortal words guaranteeing “unalienable rights” enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, our democratic republic has a long and proud history of being on the forefront of moral progress. As Justice Kennedy implied in his Majority Opinion, the ideal of “equality” has been redefined several times throughout our young nation’s history. Each time, the term has been expanded to include more people and more rights, reflecting a shifting moral zeitgeist that the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer calls “the expanding circle.” Today, five justices of our highest court expanded that circle once more, ruling that the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to exercise the fundamental right to marry.
This ruling demonstrates what is arguably an American President’s most lasting and important power – the ability to appoint Supreme Court justices. Obama has appointed two: Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, both of whom voted in favor of same-sex marriage rights today. Whatever one thinks about Obama, there is no denying the profound, positive impact his appointments have made upon the lives of LGBT people, and these two women will be sitting on the highest court in the land long after Obama has left the White House. If Ruth Bader Ginsburg resigns, as some expect, Obama may have the chance to appoint yet another Justice to the Court before he leaves office.
Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court’s vote was split directly down ideological lines. With the notable exception of Kennedy (whom most experts saw as a potential swing vote all along), the so-called “liberal” Justices appointed by “liberal” Presidents voted in favor, while the “conservative” appointees voted against. Justice Kennedy, a Catholic, Republican appointee, cast the deciding vote in favor of petitioners and penned the majority opinion.
At a time when the majority of Americans support same sex marriage, the Republican appointees to the Supreme Court chose to take a narrow view that the Court should not exercise sweeping power but should rather await more public debate and democratic consensus. Justice Kennedy and the majority, on the other hand, opined that “individuals who are harmed need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right” such as marriage.
GOP leaders on record as supporting “traditional marriage” (and sometimes dodging whether that’s the only kind they could get behind) have responded with various degrees of disdain. Mike Huckabee said we must resist “judicial tyranny.” Scott Walker weighed in that “the only alternative left for the American people is to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to reaffirm the ability of the states to continue to define marriage,” although he did not unambiguously call for such a divisive amendment. Bobby Jindal worried out loud about “the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with the decision” but, like others, did not clearly call for a constitutional amendment to reverse the decision. Jeb Bush called for us as a country to “protect religious freedom and the right of conscience and also not discriminate.”
Of course, words like “liberal” and “conservative” are arbitrary and often very misleading. The truly “conservative” thing to do here is to defend the Constitution and the rights it affords to American citizens. There’s more than a hint of irony that (1) same-sex couples wanting to marry are by some measure choosing a conservative institution, and (2) the Court has done Republican Presidential hopefuls a favor by taking marriage equality off the table thereby helping the GOP avoid internally-divisive debates on the issue.
What exactly is “equality?” Justice Kennedy reminded us that it is up to the American people as citizens to answer these timeless philosophical questions at the heart of ethics and society. “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” reads the Majority Opinion. “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.” Thanks to President Obama, our “liberal” Supreme Court Justices, Justice Kennedy, legions of petitioners and lawyers, and generations of brave activists, America has finally acknowledged the common sense fact that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are deserving of equal rights, too.