Remember that piece of paper called the Constitution with that little section called the Bill of Rights that’s supposed to ensure that all Americans are treated equally under the law? Well, the Obama administration signaled this week that same-sex married couples are entitled to the same protections guaranteed in the Constitution, which means they should have the same access to Social Security benefits, joint taxes, and health insurance coverage as their heterosexual counterparts.
In an extraordinary shift in policy this week, the president announced the Department of Justice will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. Under DOMA, which was passed in 1996, the federal government has the right not to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples.
Some say, “Big deal. Gays can still get married somewhere.” And yes, gays and lesbians are currently allowed to be married in 5 out of 50 states in the union as well as the District of Columbia. But this means the gay and lesbian community is subjected to a patchwork of protections and vulnerabilities that heterosexual families don’t have to face.
Imagine the excitement of getting a promotion at your job that will move you and your family to another state. Except the move is to one of the 45 states that do not recognize your marriage and therefore you can’t cover your family under your insurance, take family leave when your spouse falls ill, or be legally recognized as your child’s second parent. That’s the everyday anxiety-riddled existence of same-sex married couples and their families in the United States.
Marriage equality is not a self-interested scheme put together by an “overprivileged and wealthy” group of gay white men—contrary to popular images and slogans used by antigay organizations. In fact, marriage equality and other pro-equality policies would most benefit gay people of color.
A recent New York Times article underscores this point. The latest Census data reveal that gay families are actually quite diverse. We now know that African-American and Latino gay couples are twice as likely to be raising children as their white counterparts and that these families are among the most economically disadvantaged in America. Federally recognized marriage would provide gay families of color with the financial, health care, and other safeguards necessary for them to thrive.
Several court cases have been filed on the constitutionality of DOMA. Until today, President Obama allowed the Department of Justice to defend the law. The president, however, along with Attorney General Eric Holder, decided the law was unconstitutional after much scrutiny.
“Much of the legal landscape has changed in the 15 years since Congress passed” the Defense of Marriage Act, Holder said in a statement. Holder went on to explain that since DOMA’s enactment, laws criminalizing homosexual conduct have been overturned and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been repealed.
Our government is supposed to protect the rights of all people and defend the Constitution regardless of the religious beliefs of its elected officials. We have separation between church and state for this very reason. Elected officials do not have the right to impose their religious beliefs on the public at the expense of equal protection under the law.
Conservatives are already lined up to condemn the president’s actions. You would think that a party so steeped in “family values” would support the stability that marriage provides given the fact that they spend millions on campaigns to slander the gay and lesbian community calling them “promiscuous” and “unsavory.”
We live in a society that is constantly evolving and growing faster than you can tweet it. This week signals that our laws are slowly beginning to do the same.
Danielle and Aisha Moodie-Mills are Living, Loving, and Laboring OUT Loud! They serve as Advisors for LGBT Policy and Racial Justice at the Center for American Progress. Their initiative at the Center is called Fighting Injustice to Reach Equality, or FIRE, which examines the impact of public policy on gay and transgender African Americans.
The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.
Advisor, LGBT Policy and Racial Justice
Aisha C. Moodie-Mills
Senior Fellow and Director, FIRE Initiative