The Case for Equality
Segregation in the United States was struck down in the landmark decision in Brown versus Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas). The court held in a unanimous vote that the policy of separate but equal was inherently flawed. This set aside an 1896 ruling that allowed for separate black and white schools, not to mention other institutions. By 1954 the court had realized the flaws of the earlier thinking, perhaps marred by personal prejudices, and ruled against the notion of separate but equal. The establishment of two separate classes of people meant by its very nature that they were unequal in standing.
Despite the high court ruling, discrimination and segregation continued to exist throughout the 1950’s. In fact it took federal government intervention in the 1960’s to force the end of segregation at some southern schools. Governors Ross Barnett of Mississippi and George Wallace of Alabama famously tried to stop integration of universities in their states and maintain segregation. While Governor Wallace remained popular in his state, Barnett, an avowed segregationist, was a one term governor. Ending segregation by court ruling, did not change the opinions of many.
The prejudices of earlier times continued to plague the following decades, court rulings not withstanding. It was impossible to erase generations of discrimination with some decisions of the court. Indeed, many grew up learning discrimination and hatred in their own homes. It would not so easily be set aside.
While a variety of equal rights were secured through the remainder of the 20th century by court ruling and legislation, there was one area where discrimination was being written into state laws. Indeed the fear card started to be played anew when rights for certain citizens were being discussed. It started when the Hawaii Supreme Court held in 1993 that the refusal to grant same-sex marriages was discriminatory. In the years that immediately followed many states, including Hawaii, wrote laws to ban same-sex marriage. In 1998 voters in Hawaii gave the legislature the right to define marriage as an opposite sex couple.
The systematic adoption of such laws across the country set up two classes of people. The 104th Congress piled on in 1996 with the now infamous Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This law institutionalized discrimination and denied basic benefits to same sex couples that were provided to opposite sex couples in almost a thousand laws. This included estate benefits or right to inherit, joint tax filings, survivor social security benefits, and so on. The very establishment of another class of citizen would be the eventual downfall of DOMA.
The federal government had always held that whoever a state recognized as married was married, but then they tried to deny benefits under DOMA to those a state found to be married. The most egregious example was brought to the attention of the high court in United States v. Windsor. It was a fight taken up on behalf of an elderly woman whose marriage in New York did not seem to matter to the feds when her partner died and they took everything. They did not recognize her right to inherit. Either the feds recognized the marriages that were recognized by states, or they did not. They could not have two classes of citizens. The court saw DOMA as “a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment” and struck down some of its provisions.
Despite this ruling, as well as overturning California’s attempt to ban gay marriage through Proposition 8, there are still a majority of states that declare that a particular two people in love are not equal to another two people in love. It is the case of setting up another class of citizen. Apparently, many states are still under the notion this is OK. People talk about the institution of marriage as if some God came down from on high with a set of rules about this.
Yes, I already know what some are thinking, but since I do not know ancient Aramaic, I will not pretend that the interpretations and translations of the Bible handed me by the religious right are necessarily correct. Nor do I buy into any of the other scare tactics they use to convince us to set up a separate class. That separate class thing just does not stand up against any test when Supreme Court justices have to sit and listen to it.
In the new political climate states are introducing “religious freedom laws” and “bathroom laws” that are discriminatory at their cores. They allow for setting up separate classes and separate treatments of various people, not because of criminal activity, but for who they are, who they love, who they identify as. Will the current high court strike down this discrimination, or institutionalize it as present leaders would like to do?