Celebrating ruling for civil rights

Published 10:01 am Thursday, July 2, 2015

History was made Friday morning, with the disposition of the most urgent civil rights issue of our time. The U.S. Supreme Court said things that gay Americans have longed to hear:

“The court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. No longer may this liberty be denied them.”

Friday’s 5-4 ruling, written by Republican appointee and swing voter Anthony Kennedy, is vivid proof that (in the words of Martin Luther King) the long arc of history bends toward justice. This ruling has long been anticipated, and for good reason. It was really quite simple: The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection of the laws, and gay people who wished to marry did not have that protection. It was only a matter of time before they got it.

Kennedy’s reasoning was simple: “Under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, no state shall ‘deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’….The identification and protection of fundamental rights is an enduring part of the judicial duty to interpret the Constitution….The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.

“The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.”

One such claim was addressed in 1967, when the high court finally recognized that racial intermarriage was constitutional. And now we have this: “Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.”

Kennedy also had a message for religious conservatives: Regardless of how much your faith compels you to discriminate against gays, bear in mind that the Constitution is a secular document. In his words, “The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered….The Constitution, however, does not permit the state to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.”

Translation: If you own a business that serves the general public, the Constitution trumps personal faith.

What a week this has been. The Confederate flags are coming down, Obamacare is thumbs up and gay marriage is legal in all 50 states. It’s enough to make one proud to be an American.

But an historic occasion like this wouldn’t be complete without a thigh-slapping blast from Antonin Scalia, who (as he did recently, on Obamacare) has lashed out with insult lines fit for a Fox News apparatchik. A quick sampling: “Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court…an unelected committee of nine…But what really astounds is the hubris reflected in today’s judicial Putsch.”

That’s junk food for the trolls. Setting aside the loaded word putsch, which is most commonly associated with the Nazis’ attempted coup in 1923, I’ll merely point out that Scalia had no problems with being a “Ruler,” with being part of an “unelected committee,” when he voted with the majority in 2000 to stop the Florida recount and drag George W. Bush across the finish line; or when he voted in the majority for gun rights; or for abortion curbs; or for wrecking the campaign finance laws. Whatever. Bottom line is, he and the rest of the reactionaries have lost. Their only recourse is to chew the carpet.

What matters – and what will likely endure forever – is the view of the majority: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach.”

This is a day to celebrate what is best about America.


Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at dickpolman7@gmail.com.