Seattle civil rights activists have asked their elected officials to change the law to allow same-sex partners to marry. This parallels pioneering efforts in San Francisco, New York, Portland, and the state of Massachusetts – not to mention entire countries in Europe which now bless same-sex couples with the same civil liberties as everyone else.
Legal strategies in the United States are homing in on an inescapable fact, one which makes neoconservatives uncomfortable. In the United States, the law denies same-sex couples the same civil liberties as everyone else.
Rather than paraphrase the news, I will excerpt from the article by Wyatt Buchanan in today’s San Francisco Chronicle:
When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered city officials to marry same-sex couples -- a defiant act two years ago that soon was emulated in Portland, Ore., and New Paltz, N.Y. -- gay rights supporters in Seattle demanded that their elected officials do the same.
Instead, King County Executive Ron Sims placed an unusual phone call.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to break the law. Will you please sue me to strike down the law?’ ” said Lisa M. Stone, executive director of the Northwest Women’s Law Center. “That’s not a call we get very often.”
“The cases present constitutional issues that judges haven’t thought about a great deal yet,” said Matt Coles, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “It’s not just the narrow issue of marriage but how you think about laws that discriminate against gay people under the equal protection clause, how you think about what a fundamental right is.
La Parola didn’t invent the concepts of equal protection and the universality of civil liberties. But we have been saying for years that same-sex couples have been denied the same constitutional protections that other Americans take for granted.
It isn’t about what America feels like “sanctioning” or approving, though America has a 200+ year track record of clinging to the popular idea that your constitutional rights can be subordinated to popular approval. That’s right: in order for you to exercise a constitutional right, you may have to wait and see when – if ever – a committee of your friends and neighbors ratifies that right for everyone, or just for themselves.
In the past, this precedence of inconsistency seemed to excuse the many politically active religious groups who campaigned agressively to deny fundamental liberties to others, such as same-sex couples.
The Constitution says the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, but when the citizens of the good City of San Francisco vote to ban handguns, listen to these same partisans scream!
I and my partner of fifteen years had always wanted to obtain a marriage license. It wasn’t a matter of commitment – our partnership was already a devoted lifetime commitment. It was a matter of respect, dignity, and equal protection under the law. We thought of Amsterdam, or groundbreaking San Francisco. A marriage that gets shot down in the courts is denigrating. And, what were we to do: get married in ten different localities, in the hope that one would survive court challenges?
My partner Bob Sibley died last year, after a long battle with cancer. I will always regret that, in his lifetime, he never saw equality and recognition in our nation, or even in our state, for a domestic home life that was always the same for every day of our fifteen years together: a commitment to the household, and to each other, forever.
How many lifetimes will it take?
Those who think that civil rights aren’t a right, but a privilege that can be revoked or denied, better not complain about their Second Amendment rights, or wave the flag or the great Constitution in our faces. Those who are unable or unwilling to defend the rights of others haven’t really forfeited anyone’s rights, even their own.
What they have forfeited is their own credibility whenever they try to selectively defend some rights and deny others. And they keep good company: this thinking goes all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Heresy? If civil liberties really were a juggling act, in which some parties must do without the rights of full citizenship so that others may take pleasure in theirs more fully, then how are civil liberty guarantees better than just a Soviet-style farce? If that were the case, should we then proclaim that the great American experiment really failed?
In another era, Americans believed in the sacred tenet of “Live and Let Live”, even though we didn’t practice it. Let’s hope for all our sakes we see the light before it’s too late for any of us.
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