In 2004, Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, this through a state Supreme Court ruling striking down that state’s prohibitions. It marked the first sliver of an opening in yet another equality door, another small fissure in the brick wall of American prejudice. In spite of the desire and expectations of many Americans, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts did not split off and fall into the Atlantic Ocean. Same-sex marriages were begun; traditional opposite-sex marriages continued to flourish unabated; people continued to go to church; children were raised without harm; crimes rates did not increase. The American Republic – and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – survived.
Nevertheless, state after state rushed to change their constitutions to make opposite-sex marriage the only permissible form of committed relationship between consenting adults. And thereby, such “marriages” would be the only means possible to have unquestioned and comprehensive legal, property, custodial, benefit, taxation and survivor rights. At that time, around 60% of the public was opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage.
Fast-forward ten years. A single decade. One by one, 19 states and the District of Columbia sanctioned same-sex marriage, either by the vote of its citizens, legislative approval, or state or federal court rulings. Then, only one year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by 5-4 majority that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibited federal agencies from recognizing any state-sanctioned marriage for the purpose of awarding federal rights and benefits, was unconstitutional. The surprising ruling left many political and religious conservatives adrift at sea in uncharted waters. If one had long argued that it was a state’s right and not federal government’s prerogative to define marriage, then how could a federal law deny rights and benefits to a couple a state said was legally married? The Court ruling also opened the door for same-sex couples legally married in one state to protest their not being recognized in another state – given each state’s traditional reciprocal acceptance of the legal status of couples married in other states. I.e. if a state’s laws required it to accept as “married” a couple legally married in Massachusetts before the advent of same-sex marriage, was it not now similarly obligated to accept Massachusetts’ definition of a married couple after same-sex marriage?
With the unconstitutionality of DOMA decided, and the reciprocity issue and constitutionality protests against same-sex marriage prohibition laws now banging on courtroom benches across the country, the equal-treatment door was now flung wide open. State by state, constitutional prohibitions started falling, littering the legal landscape. Public opinion on same-sex marriage – 60% opposed ten years ago before – now flipped to 60% in favor, even more so among younger generations. The legal tide, the public opinion tide, had shifted and grown into a tsunami of social change. All that was required was waiting for the “when.” And the when was Monday, October 6th. And since a decision to accept a case for a full Supreme Court hearing requires only four votes, and this appeal request failed, the “non-decision/decision” against same-sex marriage prohibitions was at least an implied 6-3 vote – more convincing than the close DOMA strike-down decision. The public spoke; the lower courts spoke; the Supreme Court acknowledged the message. And its inevitability.
It will still take a while to work this through all of the systems and into everyday life. Cleaning out old, now-invalid pages in the law books; revising bureaucratic forms and application procedures across myriad topics; revising process manuals. “Husband and wife” terminology will continue to be awkwardly problematic, just as “significant other” is for unmarried partners. The various money machines and politicians who have thrived on this hate issue will gradually fade away into the background, though some will continue to try to exploit and milk it for fundraising, vote-getting, or attention-getting as long as they can. Perhaps they should instead take their cue from Pope Francis, who recently called on the Catholic Church (a bastion of “traditional family values”) to find some way to welcome and accept gay people, and unmarried and divorced couples: “Gay people have gifts and qualities to offer the Church community.”
Life will go on. Opposite-gender marriage will still vastly predominate. Same-sex marriages will learn and experience the same painful frailties that have long existed with opposite-sex marriages. People will still associate with whom they choose. America’s commitment to personal freedom and equality, however difficult sometimes in the specifics, is reaffirmed.
In the end, this whole fight reflects the issue written about previously on this blog site (“Gay and Lesbian Marrage,”12/15/2008). Until the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, black couples were not allowed to marry at all. Until the 1960s, laws existed in several states prohibiting mixed-race marriages. These prohibitions all ultimately fell as being incompatible with the American value of “equal treatment” – as well as the value of “minding our own business.” And a recognition that the legal rights of citizens cannot be tempered by the mixed, and often contradictory, rules and rituals of our many diverse religions. Each religion, denomination, church and congregation should be free to decide what it chooses about its spiritual vision and relationship with its congregants. That is one of our most cherished and protected freedoms. But that deserved freedom cannot then be used to dictate the legal visions of our secular lives.
Given the normal slowness in which social change occurs, the speed of this legalization of same-sex marriage is almost dizzying. Who could have seen it coming this fast? Perhaps almost too fast for any society to absorb. But if you were a homosexual any time in the last perhaps 5000 years; if you were in Greenwich Village in New York City at the Stonewall Inn riot in 1969; if you were an early same-sex pioneer in San Francisco watching one of your own shot and killed; if you have been one of the many bullied, beaten, or left out because of “who you are”; then perhaps this “social change at warp speed” was not so quick at all. Maybe it was simply a long time in finally coming.
All I know is that my life is, and will be, unchanged by this change in marriage definition. I suspect so yours will be unchanged also. Unless you happen to be one of these new kinds of happy newlyweds. Congratulations.
© 2014 Randy Bell www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com