Constitutional Rights Despite "Disdain"

05/25/2011 02:25 pm ET

There are times, when as a columnist, I receive e-mail and/or voice mail that causes me to either look with the curiosity of "Nipper," the dog portrayed on the RCA Victor advertisements or tennis great John McEnroe as he blurts out: "You cannot be serious!"

I have a cadre of such readers who elicit those reactions. They manage only to rear their collective heads in dissent when the issue is my support for gay rights.

Even on those rare occasions when they may agree with an issue, such as last week's critique on how Mormon Elder Dallin Oaks misused the history of the Civil Rights Movement, they still made time to share their opposition to gay rights.

Several bemoan that I seemingly show "more support for gays than I do for my own people." I take that last statement to mean that there are no gay African Americans.

Didn't Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggest something similar about Iran when he spoke at Columbia University in 2007?

What struck me was one caller, in particular, admitted his "disdain" for the gay community. An interesting word choice that raises a far more interesting question: can one have disdain for a people and still support their constitutional rights?

While perhaps the immediate response for many would be "no," in our system whether one likes something personally is irrelevant in terms of their willingness to support it on constitutional grounds.

The 14th Amendment, adopted after the Civil War, along with the 13th and 15th Amendments, was one of three Reconstruction Amendments added to the Constitution.

Section one of the 14th Amendment states:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The aforementioned 80 words serve as the foundation on which I base my support for same-sex marriage.

It was the belief of Thaddeus Stevens, the Floor Leader for the Republicans in the House of Representatives; the 14th Amendment would create a "perfect republic."

The 14th Amendment obviously fell short of Stevens' lofty goal, but that does not diminish its long-standing importance as a beacon that guides the nation toward its most sacred values.

Approved by Congress in 1866 and integrated as part of the Constitution in 1868, the 14th Amendment remains arguably the most crucial change since the Bill of Rights.

The 14th Amendment also added clarity to Jefferson's immortal words: "We hold these truths self-evident that all men are created equal." Tragically, ratification of the 14th Amendment required the nation going to war against itself because of its inability to reconcile its original sin of slavery.

Ironically, it was the bravery of nearly 200,000 former slaves, fighting for the Union, that victory was ensured. And it was nearly 100 years later, when black Southerners and white supporters forged a unique coalition, based on their belief in the 14th Amendment that civil rights legislation was passed and signed.

Neither brought perfection, but are we not better for it?

The 14th Amendment transformed the Constitution from a document that navigated the relationship between the federal government and the states to one where members of a minority class could lay claim to the same rights, free from the tyranny of the majority.

As abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison stated, the 14th Amendment was the "transformation of four million human beings from the auction block to the ballot box." But it is unlikely the 14th Amendment would have been ratified if its passing was based on what people liked. In 1868, former slaves were still largely viewed as second-class citizens in the North as well as the South. Few would argue that blacks were universally liked when the 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution.

But due process and equal protection should not be treated as finite resources. Extending these rights to one group does not require that something be taken away from another group.

How one feels personally about an issue is irrelevant as it relates to the 14th Amendment. It is the peculiar greatness of America that allows one to have "disdain" for the gay community but still embrace their constitutional rights to full equality.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him or visit his Web