by Steve Sanders, who teaches constitutional law, constitutional litigation, and family law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. He was co-counsel on the Human Rights Campaign’s amicus brief in Obergefell v. Hodges.
The mid-summer anniversaries of Supreme Court’s marriage equality decisions, United States v. Windsor (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), should be celebrated not only for the ends they accomplished – ending the federal non-recognition of same-sex marriages, then bringing about full nationwide marriage equality – but for the way they elevated gays and lesbians to a place of constitutional dignity. This principle of equal dignity must play a central role as the legal and political movements for LGBT equality continue to evolve.
The Supreme Court laid important groundwork for marriage equality in Romer v. Evans, where it observed that states could not single out gays and lesbians for special legal and political disadvantages that were intended “not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else.” It continued the project in Lawrence v. Texas, where it said gays and lesbians “are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime” under sodomy laws. In earlier posts on this blog, Sarah Warbelow and Paul Smith have reflected on the significance of these cases.
Marriage equality was, of course, a considerably larger and more controversial question, because it implicated the social meaning of homosexuality and whether gays and lesbians were entitled to have their lives and relationships accorded the same value and respect by government as heterosexuals. Religious conservatives and their agents in the Republican Party had been working for years to prevent the possibility of such equal dignity. The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was struck down in Windsor, and the state bans on same-sex marriage, struck down in Obergefell, represented some of the worst characteristics of American politics. They were enacted through campaigns of fear, dishonesty and anti-gay animus. One of the marriage bans invalidated by the Supreme Court was a Kentucky state constitutional amendment passed in 2004; a state legislator told the Louisville Courier-Journal at the time that the amendment’s supporters had shown “an unparalleled level of zeal, intolerance and hatred” toward gays. In 2010, the federal judge who struck down California’s Proposition 8 found that the campaign in support of that 2008 ballot measure had presented voters with a “multitude of … advertisements and messages” intended to “convey to voters that same-sex relationships are inferior to opposite-sex relationships and dangerous to children.”
As challenges to DOMA and state marriage laws made their way through the federal courts, two things were becoming clear. First, these laws rested on flimsy and disingenuous justifications that were easily dismantled by most judges who confronted them. Second, public opinion was undergoing a stunning sea change, and a majority of Americans were becoming ready to accept marriage equality. Social change was moving hand-in-hand with legal change.