How fitting that just before Martin Luther King Jr. weekend our Supreme Court justices agreed to decide whether our constitution requires all 50 states to recognize same-sex marriages. As Dr. King said the night before he died, "All we say to America is be true to what you said on paper."
On paper, we Americans make sweeping pronouncements about equality, from the Declaration of Independence's promise that "all men are created equal" to our constitution's 14th Amendment guarantee that all persons are entitled to the "equal protection" of the laws.
Yet it's up to the courts to bring those texts to life. In the case of gay marriage, LGBT activists have had to do something no other group has, going state by state to obtain rulings granting them their rights. And in the last year or so, in a nearly unbroken string of more than 40 rulings around the country, federal and state judges have found that state same sex marriage bans are unconstitutional.
Because equal means equal.
The arguments against gay marriage would be laughable if they weren't so insulting. Heterosexual marriages have not caved in from "undermining" by same-sex unions. The foundations of our nation have not been shaken. We have not gone down the slippery slope to humans marrying dogs or rats or orangutans.
Instead, as the Supreme Court has recognized in all of its decisions striking down anti-gay laws in the last dozen years, legal recognition of LGBT rights elevates us as a nation that respects the dignity of each of us, regardless of who we love and form families with.
Kudos to the courageous, visionary Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for being the first in the U.S., in 2003, to extend state law to same sex couples. Today, 35 other states do too, along with the District of Columbia, representing more than 70 percent of all Americans. The majority of Americans support gay marriage, and the number continues to grow. Eighty percent of young adults support marriage equality.
In 2003, the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Taylor struck down laws criminalizing private lesbian and gay sex as an affront to the liberty and privacy rights of consenting adults. In 2013, it held that the odious Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and required states to recognize same sex marriages performed in marriage equality states. In the latter, the Court said that denying same sex couples marriage rights "demeans the couple" and that "it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples." When their parents are treated like an inferior class of people, it's tough for kids "to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives." And that doesn't even address the hundreds of legal rights that come with marriage, including tax and social service benefits, hospital visitation rights, inheritance and the like.
Dignity has always been the essence of Justice Kennedy's majority opinions on gay rights cases. Second class citizenship demeans the LGBT community -- and all of us for tolerating such an un-American state of affairs. On the other side, Justice Scalia and his followers on the court have crudely compared lesbian and gay love to bestiality, obscenity, even murder. Those dissents will be filed in history with Supreme Court decisions upholding slavery (Dred Scott) racial segregation (Plessy v. Ferguson) and internment of Japanese-Americans (Korematsu). In each of those cases, insulting generalizations about race animated the decisions. The Court got it wrong, until later, it got it right.
In the case of marriage, it's only a matter of time until all 50 states recognize full LGBT equality. The Court can either get it wrong this time until it gets it right later, or it can be on the right side of history on its first full pass on this issue this term. Those are the only two options.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said so presciently, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."