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.”