The proponents of illiberality and oppression often peddle their own warped definitions of equality. For them, segregation was an egalitarian institution – prohibiting women’s voting rights was just an extension of treating the inherently unequal sexes appropriately, according to their own potential abilities.
But as we all realize today, segregation in any form and/or the denying of individual rights is never truly an equal enterprise, no matter how much social conservatives may pontificate on their outdated and morally backward views.
And yet the opponents of gay marriage continue this fallacious line of argument.
Last week, during the Supreme Court’s hearings on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Paul D. Clement, who represented the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives, argued that when the federal government denies gay couples their legal benefits in states where gay marriage is legal, it is merely acting towards a goal of equality.
When the federal government enacted DOMA, Clement argued, it did so with an understanding of marriage in the “traditional” sense – as being between a man and a woman. In order to treat all states equally, he explained, the federal government needed a definition of marriage as guidance for divvying out benefits. So, the federal government under DOMA isn’t being repressive or unfair; it’s merely seeking a form of national standardization in order to make its job easier.
Setting aside the fact that I’ve already delved into why the idea of “traditional marriage” itself is bogus and the clear evidence that DOMA’s original proponents acted more for “moral” reasons than a desire for standardizing national benefits, this understanding of equality is ludicrous.
The federal government does not behave this way with any other state marriage discrepancies, such as age of consent or residency rights. As Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out:
“You would say it would be the same thing if the State passed a law – Congress passes a law which says, well, there’s some States – they all used to require 18 as the age of consent. Now, a lot of them have gone to 17. So if you’re 17 when you get married, then no tax deduction, no medical, no nothing. Or some States had a residence requirement of a year, some have six months, some have four months. So Congress passes a law that says, well unless you’re there for a year, no medical deduction, no tax thing, no benefits of any kind, that that would be perfectly constitutional. It wouldn’t be arbitrary, it wouldn’t be random, it wouldn’t be capricious.”
Under Clement’s ridiculous reasoning, if DOMA were enacted in the 19th century, it would be perfectly constitutional and absent of animus for the federal government to deny benefits to interracial couples since, at the time, a “traditional” view of marriage, in most cases, did not include miscegenation.
This is not equality. What Clement and gay marriage opponents are advocating is a system wherein the tyranny of the illiberal majority of states is forced upon the minority of dissenting states. Sitting athwart history and demanding the progression of moral evolution simply stop is not upholding equality – it is promoting oppression, division, and animus.
True state equality would be to allow each state to define marriage as it sees fit, with the federal government providing benefits to each state according to its own definition of the institution.
Yet I say “state equality” for a reason. For, even under this system, true individual equality will not be achieved. Although federalism may be the best worst and most realistic option for progressing homosexual rights in this country, it is not the ideal. Even under federalism, certain states would be allowed to remain tyrannical towards certain of its citizens. We cannot afford to forget this sad reality. Keeping this uncomfortable truth in mind will only motivate us to continue to push humanity forward along the long moral arc of the universe, which, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., bends towards the ultimate destination of true justice.