Two steps forward, one step back
Activists meet Supreme Court decisions for same-sex marriage and against voting rights with mixed emotions
US Supreme Court rulings in favor of same-sex marriage and against enforcement of voting rights in notoriously racist Southern states were met with mixed reactions last week by local civil rights activists, who said the fight for civil, social and political equality is far from over.
“It is impossible for us not to stand here and see that we took a huge step forward on marriage equality after we took one step back on voter rights,” said the Rev. Susan Russell, an openly gay senior associate pastor at Pasadena’s All Saints Episcopal Church, which has long performed same-sex marriages.
“I remember in 2008 standing on a stage in Hollywood rejoicing over the election of the first African-American president as we watched Proposition 8 take rights away from LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] Americans,” Russell told the Pasadena Weekly. “We’ve stood together on both of these issues and we are going to continue standing together. Everyone who has ever fought for civil rights knows that until all of us are free, none of us are.”
Opponents of Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative that would have outlawed same-sex weddings, gathered at All Saints following Wednesday’s Supreme Court 5-4 ruling striking down the ballot measure, which defined marriage in California as a union between a man and a woman.
That decision came shortly after another 5-4 ruling on Wednesday deemed unconstitutional a portion of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that prohibits the payment of federal pensions and other benefits to gay spouses.
The previous day, the Supreme Court — on another 5-4 decision — struck down a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which prohibited nine Southern states from changing voting laws without clearance from the federal government. Court critics say Tuesday’s decision could allow some states to enact voter ID laws and other rules that could once again disenfranchise minorities at the polls.
“As Congress recognized when it reenacted the preclearance requirement with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in 2006, strong federal legislation remains necessary to ensure that all Americans can exercise the right to vote free from racial discrimination,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. “That fact is as true in today as it was seven years ago.”
The Rev. Inman Moore, who helped desegregate Mississippi almost 50 years ago, said the court is underestimating the level of racism that still exists in the country.
“The Supreme Court underestimates the fact that, while overt segregation is passé, there is still a tremendous amount of racial prejudice in the United States. That is evident in the constant attacks made against President Obama,” Moore said.
That 5-4 ruling strikes down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act which prohibits Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia from making changes to voting laws without approval from the federal government.
The Voting Rights Act, signed by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson with the support of more than 90 percent of the Republicans in Congress at the time, helped abolish segregation at the polls during the Jim Crow era in the South, when many African Americans were subjected to unreasonable tests and other restrictions in efforts to deny them the right to vote.
“It seems like we take two steps forward and one step back,” Russell said. “We must now put our hands back to the plow and lobby Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act.”
Ironically, Obama praised the court’s decisions against laws that were, in part, responsible for his historic presidential victory. “I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act,” said Obama, who opposed same-sex marriage in 2008, but now supports it. “This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people. The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it.”
Obama also said he instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to work with other members of his cabinet to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, including its calls for payment of federal benefits and other obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly.
Same-sex couples regained the freedom to marry in California after the high court voted 5-4 that the conservative activists that appealed the decision did not have the right to take up the case after former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-Attorney General Jerry Brown refused to defend the law when it was challenged in federal court.
“We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “We decline to do so for the first time here.”
Along with Roberts, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan also joined in the majority opinion. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is from California, filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor.
In dissent, Kennedy, who is from California, said that while the high court did not see the connection between the activists and state government, the power resides with the people of that state.
“The Court concludes that proponents lack sufficient ties to the state government,” wrote Kennedy. “It notes that they ‘are not elected,’ ‘answer to no one,’ and lack ‘a fiduciary obligation’ to the State. But what the Court deems deficiencies in the proponents’ connection to the State government, the State Supreme Court saw as essential qualifications to defend the initiative system. The very object of the initiative system is to establish a lawmaking process that does not depend upon state officials. In California, the popular initiative is necessary to implement 'the theory that all power of government ultimately resides in the people.’”
The court also shot a key portion of DOMA, a law which Democratic President Bill Clinton signed into law after both houses passed it with majority support from both parties.
The act barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex married couples as spouses, blocking them from receiving more than 1,000 federal benefits which apply to spouses.
Hours after the Proposition 8 and DOMA rulings were announced, All Saints held an afternoon sermon.
“Today's victory is a result of years of hard work by same-sex couples, their families, allies, and advocates to create the climate for the court’s ruling,” said All Saints Rector Ed Bacon. “All Saints Church has been privileged to be a partner in this struggle for justice and equality for over 20 years. The truth is that when gay people share in the freedom to marry, it makes families stronger, which makes communities, states and our nation stronger. I am confident that here at All Saints Church in Pasadena, we know it has made our church stronger.”
Bacon said the church would start performing same sex ceremonies as soon as the law allowed.
Before Proposition 8 passed, the church performed 48 same-sex weddings for couples like Joseph Sedlacek and Joey Fang, who said they were thrilled with the decision.
“We’re very happy,” Sedlacek told the Weekly. “We were married on Nov. 2, 2008 here at All Saints. Although it was great for us to get married, we didn’t feel very happy that anybody else could get married, so it was like we were on this little island so it’s great to now know that everybody in California can now get married and even more so that DOMA has been repealed and so now we can get the same rights as anybody else. I’m just hoping that this is just start of a wave throughout the country and there will be equal rights soon.”
“We’re thrilled,” said Phil Clintworth, who attended the sermon with his husband, David Arriola. “I had trouble sleeping last night because I was waiting for that 7 a.m. decision. It’s been a long struggle for people all over the country. I couldn’t be happier.”
Just when marriage had become a possibility for Pasadena couple Janis Reid and Brenda Bos, California’s state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, was passed into law. Reid, 50, and Bos, 48, began dating in 2008, the year Proposition 8 passed with approximately 52 percent of the vote.
“What that said to me was that even though years before I would have said I wouldn’t be involved in a fight for marriage … to have us have it and then have it voted away was really very upsetting,” Bos said.
For couples like Reid and Bos, who plan to marry this month, the ruling provides legal validation in communities where the acceptance of same-sex couple has long been the norm.
“We both grew up in conservative Christian churches,” Reid said. “It was assumed if you were Christian you weren’t gay and nobody discussed it. So for me, my awareness came late because I never even considered the possibility of being gay.”
By the time she came out, Reid said, she was already involved in an inclusive church and most of her family had become more liberal. She described her experience as “less brutal than many.” Bos said she had more difficulty with family members and her church, which asked her to leave, but “it wasn’t awful, hateful."
The pair had been dating for a few months when California began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in June 2008. Though they weren’t ready to be married at the time, Reid and Bos witnessed their gay and lesbian friends get married.
“It put in our minds the possibility of being married,” Reid said. Her church, All Saints, “has been blessing gay unions for 20 years, so it wasn’t a new idea to be married in a church. What was new was to have the state acknowledge it.”
Reid and Bos wed in a commitment ceremony at All Saints in June 2011. They were registered domestic partners by then, or “as legally married as we could be at that point,” Bos said.
“That’s really what we consider our wedding day,” she said of the ceremony.
The pair plans to hold a civil ceremony for their legal marriage and hope to soon finalize the adoption of their foster son.
“It’s one more step towards changing us being second-class citizens,” Reid said. “At least for our state, we are legal the way everyone else is.”