Civil rights

  • May 6, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Julie Nice, Herbst Foundation Professor of Law and Dean’s Circle Scholar, University of San Francisco School of Law

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

    Whatever Justice Kennedy decides on the question of whether states can ban same-sex marriage, the name Obergefell will mark this landmark moment in constitutional history.  That’s fitting because the remarkable story of undying love between James Obergefell and his late husband, John Arthur, is truly what the battle for marriage equality is about.              

    The Obergefell story is about two men determined to marry before one of them succumbed to the ruthless disease that was taking his life.  It’s a story about a medical plane transporting two men to a wedding on a tarmac in a state that would recognize their same-sex marriage.  It’s a story about the pain of the indignity suffered when their home state refused to recognize their love and their marriage on that ultimate of legal documents, the death certificate.  It’s a story about seeking “that same ennoblement” bestowed on heterosexual couples.

    It’s also a story all-too-familiar within my own family.  My sister Suzanne Nice and her partner, Maureen Martin, devoted themselves to the life they built together and sustained for over thirty years.  Through the beauty of their quiet harmony, they provided an inspiring model of loving commitment to all of us in their circle of family and friends.  Maureen died early in 2014, just months before Illinois began recognizing same-sex marriage.

    When Maureen’s death suddenly appeared imminent, we furiously attempted to obtain a medical exemption from Cook County officials to authorize their marriage ahead of the announced date upon which Illinois would begin recognizing same-sex marriages.  But the bureaucratic requirements were impossible to meet given Maureen’s deteriorating condition, and time ran out far too quickly.  I sat in the funeral home with Suzanne, alongside Maureen’s brother and sister, barely able to endure bearing witness to my sister’s pain as she was forced to acquiesce to a death certificate listing Maureen as single and never married.

    As my mind listened to the Justices sparring with the lawyers about the constitutionality of denying same-sex marriage, my heart was with Suzanne and Maureen, James and John, and the countless other devoted same-sex couples who have suffered a similar denial of dignity.

  • May 6, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Camilla Taylor, Counsel and Marriage Project National Director, Lambda Legal. Ms. Taylor is a member of the Advisory Board the Chicago Lawyer Chapter.

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

    As the four legal teams representing same-sex couples from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan left the Supreme Court after oral argument in Obergefell v. Hodges, we felt overwhelmed by the significance of the moment.  The Supreme Court is now poised in our combined cases to decide whether the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the freedom to marry.  Many of us had worked toward this day for well over a decade or longer.

    A victory in Obergefell would be transformative. Our 

    struggle for the freedom to marry has always been about far more than marital protections; at its essence, our struggle is nothing less than a demand for formal recognition of our common humanity and of the legitimacy of all families.  A win for same-sex couples and their children will breathe new life into our country’s promise of liberty and equality.  Children of same-sex couples will be able to grow up free of government-imposed stigma, and with pride in themselves and in their families.  Lesbian and gay youth will be able to hold their heads higher, secure in the knowledge that they may form families worthy of equal respect in the eyes of their government.

    However, while a victory in Obergefell would be historic, it would not be the end, even for our marriage work.  A movement to secure civil rights is never finished by a Supreme Court ruling, no matter how important that ruling may be.

    As we have seen after past marriage court victories, states determined to discriminate do not simply give up.  Instead, for example, they fight to deny the children of same-sex spouses two-parent birth certificates.  Same-sex spouses who were precluded from marrying until recently, or whose marriages were denied recognition as a result of discriminatory state marriage bans, may still have to fight for crucial marital protections subject to a relationship duration requirement (such as social security benefits for a surviving spouse, which accrue only to those who were married for more than nine months under state law).

  • April 30, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Suzanne B. Goldberg, professor and director of the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, Columbia Law School

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.  It originally appeared in the National Law Journal.

    Love and commitment have nothing to do with marriage.  So said the state of Michigan to the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges on Tuesday while defending its ban on marriage for same-sex couples.  Instead, marriage’s purpose as a civil status is to ensure adults take responsibility for their biological children, according to Michigan’s lawyer.

    The difficulty for Michigan and the three other states seeking to preserve “defense of marriage” laws ― Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee ― is that this procreation-focused definition of marriage is fundamentally unbelievable.  Many people ― including gays and lesbians ― understand marriage to have “nobility and . . . sacredness,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy observed during the argument in Obergefell and its companion cases.  Many states likewise recognize that marriage “enhance[es] the dignity of both parties,” Kennedy added.

    The procreation-focused argument also makes no sense against the backdrop of the states’ marriage laws.  There is no childbearing litmus test for people seeking to marry, as Justice Ginsburg pointed out.  Nor do states restrict marriage to couples seeking to have children biologically rather than by adoption.  And no state, Justice Stephen Breyer noted, favors biological children over adoptive children.  Importantly, the state’s argument that marriage provides the “glue” needed to keep parents connected to their children also fails to explain why gay couples are excluded from marriage.  As Justice Elena Kagan said, “It's hard to see how permitting same-sex marriage discourages people from being bonded with their biological children.”

  • April 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Sherrilyn A. Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Follow her on Twitter @Sifill_LDF.

    Yesterday, as the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether states can exclude gays and lesbians from the benefits of marriage, the crisis in Baltimore flooded the airwaves and brought renewed attention to long-simmering issues of racial justice. While the two issues might seem worlds apart, the often-overlooked truth is that both come down to the fundamental question of whether we as a nation take seriously the responsibility to confer equal dignity upon every citizen.

    It is Justice Anthony Kennedy who has elevated the principle of human dignity in a series of rulings. In a 2003 decision that decriminalized “homosexual conduct,” Justice Kennedy stressed that adults must “retain their dignity as free persons.” When the Court eliminated the death penalty for children, a majority led by Kennedy explained that the U.S. Constitution “reaffirms the duty of the government to respect the dignity of all persons.”  In a 2013 decision striking down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, Kennedy’s opinion emphasized the principle that gays and lesbians “occupy the same status and dignity” as heterosexuals.  Yesterday, at oral argument, Kennedy again raised this concern, stressing that the whole purpose of marriage is “enhancing the dignity of both the parties.”

    Yet it is not only Justice Kennedy.  In 1954, the Court in Brown v. Board unanimously struck down segregation in schools, precisely because it engendered a “feeling of inferiority as to [students’] status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”  In upholding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Court stressed “the personal dignity” of individuals who seek to access public accommodations on an equal basis.

    Most relevant to marriage equality, dignity has animated the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and its litigation dating back to the 1960s case of Loving v. Virginia.  Loving involved a married, interracial couple who were dragged out of bed by police in the middle of the night, hauled to jail, and eventually exiled from the state for 25 years in return for a suspended one-year jail term.  Not coincidentally, Virginia charged the Lovings with violating “dignity of the Commonwealth.”  LDF argued that this was unconstitutional and violated the fundamental right to marry and the justices unanimously agreed.  Building upon Loving, LDF filed a brief last month in the Supreme Court underscoring that “all persons yearn and deserve to be treated with equal dignity and respect, both individually and as married couples.”

  • April 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Janson Wu, Executive Director, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). Wu is a recipient of ACS's David Carliner Public Interest Award.

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

    On April 28, I sat in the U.S. Supreme Court to watch Mary Bonauto argue for the freedom to marry for all same-sex couples across our nation.  Her opening argument rang as true today as 12 years ago, when Mary won the Goodridge case, making Massachusetts the first marriage equality state:

    "The intimate and committed relationships of same-sex couples, just like those of heterosexual couples, provide mutual support and are the foundation of family life in our society. If a legal commitment, responsible and protection that is marriage is off limits to gay people as a claim, the stain of unworthiness that follows on individuals and families contravenes the basic constitutional commitment to equal dignity.”

    As the Executive Director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) where Mary has worked for 25 years, I was proud to witness Mary stand in front of the nine justices to argue for the equal dignity and humanity of LGBT people.  Over the course of the argument, which included passionate and articulate performances by U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and Doug Hallward-Driemeier (who argued the question of recognition of out-of-state marriages), the debate over our equal worth as citizens and as people never felt more substantial.