STERN: Obama Sets Tone for Gay Rights Debate
Published: Monday, January 28, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 01:01
President Obama’s second inaugural speech was many things to many people: a renewed battle cry for liberalism, a warning to obstructionist Republicans and an unflinching endorsement of the social safety net. But also embedded in the president’s address was an epochal proclamation. “Our journey is not yet complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
As he spoke these majestic words, Obama stood in front of all nine Supreme Court justices — the nine men and women who, in several months, will decide the fate of marriage equality for a generation.
The core question of the legal debate — whether the Equal Protection Clause forbids the government from discriminating against gay Americans — is even more pressing now. The Court, of course, has agreed to review both the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8; this means that it must either affirm or reject both federal and state-level marriage bans. Not since Brown v. Board of Education has a court case so profoundly implicated the basic premises of our society.
Important as these technical questions are, however, their dry formalities may occlude the broader issue at stake: Whether we will remain a country dedicated to equality for all its citizens or whether we will allow our government to selectively reject the rights of those it irrationally disfavors. Marriage equality, then, is not merely about extending justice to a small minority. It is about fulfilling the promise of our founding principles — a promise clearly held sacred by our president and exemplified in his speech. At one key moment, Obama elegantly interwove the urgency of now with the grand sweep of history, proclaiming:
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.”
Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall: Obama’s oratory here is both sly and breathtakingly bold. Seneca Falls was the Western world’s first women’s rights convention, Selma, Ala., was the site of a bloody civil rights confrontation and Stonewall — whose very inclusion is itself historic — marked the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. By tethering together these three landmark events, the president inextricably linked LGBT equality with America’s sweeping narrative of equality.
Lofty as this rhetorical flourish may have been, Obama grounded it in an unmistakable call to action — a call made all the more dire by the presence of the Court. Of our founding documents’ many requirements, few have been more challenging to meet than equal protection, for the definition of equality changes as rapidly as society does. With this difficulty surely in mind, Obama augmented his plea with a pragmatic reminder:
“We have always understood that when times change, so must we. That fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges.”
Marriage equality is one of these “new challenges,” as Obama knows well. That gay rights are fairly novel is immaterial to the constitutional questions surrounding them. It is no coincidence that the president’s words here echoed Lincoln’s in 1862, stating that “as our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” In a speech rife with historical allusions, this one stood apart in its startling potency. Thinking and acting anew is the challenge of a democratic government, and that will be the challenge of the Supreme Court later this year.
But another, even more famous passage lay at the heart of President Obama’s inaugural address: the central dictum of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” that document declared, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
No one has stated the case for marriage equality more forcefully than that. President Obama, in his magnificent address, reminded us of our nation’s founding promise. Let us fervently hope that the Supreme Court follows his lead.
Mark Joseph Stern is a senior in the College. LETTERS OF THE LAW appears every other Tuesday.