Court Of Public Opinion Has Decided, Leads Way For Justice System



By Kary L. Moss
Originally printed 2/27/2014 (Issue 2209 - Between The Lines News)

I recently spoke with a group of law students about life as a civil rights advocate and we soon veered onto the topic of marriage equality. They could not understand how the issue was even remotely controversial, an opinion I frequently hear. I observed that we were at the end of the 'controversy' in the court of public opinion and that the shift had been remarkable. In fact, I said I had never seen anything like it on any other social justice issue.

Just think, it was only 10 years ago that Michigan voters passed a marriage ban. At that time, bans on the freedom to marry were considered a viable political strategy by the far right as a means to turn out their base on Election Day. And they were successful. Between 1998 and 2008 thirty-one states adopted constitutional amendments blocking legal recognition of unions between same-sex couples.

Now, according to a recent poll by Glengariff Group Inc., more than 56 percent of respondents in Michigan support marriage equality, up 12.5 percentage points from the previous year. In just the last three months, courts in Utah, Oklahoma, and Virginia have struck down marriage bans as unconstitutional. Two weeks ago a court in Kentucky ruled that the state has to recognize marriages between same-sex couples performed in other states. Marriage equality is the law of the land in California, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Mexico, Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, Maryland and Washington D.C. All of this has happened in just the last five years.

It is truly remarkable progress when one considers that the history of civil rights is replete with examples of long fights and hard won victories. Just think, it wasn't until 1920 that women secured the right to vote. It wasn't until 1954 that segregation in education was ruled illegal by the United States Supreme Court. And it wasn't until 1964 that a federal Civil Rights Act was passed ensuring protection against race, sex, or age discrimination.

Even when we have taken a step forward, time and again we have then taken multiple steps backward. Although voting rights discrimination was outlawed in 1965, we continue to struggle to ensure that all people have equal access to the ballot. Although it's been illegal since 1976 to fire a woman when she became pregnant, we continue to file cases when employers fire or demote them nonetheless.

Overall, the wheels of justice turn slowly and sometimes the shifting winds upend the most fragile victories. Will discrimination and bigotry ever completely disappear? I think not. But the massive transformation we are witnessing in the public psyche should be appreciated as a truly remarkable moment that will forever change the legal and cultural landscape for the LGBTQ community.

How did this happen?

It shows what is possible when people truly unite for a common purpose.

It shows what is possible when leaders will take an unequivocal stand, as when president Obama spoke out for marriage equality.

It shows what individuals can accomplish when they take responsibility for their own communities, as when over 30 Michigan cities passed human rights ordinances in just a few years.

It shows that the courts can move the needle when presented with the right cases at the right time.

It shows the power of storytelling, which puts a human face on the issue.

It shows the power of talking about real facts, injuries, and costs of injustice.

It shows the power of putting aside our differences, resisting the temptation to compare injuries, and instead insisting that all people are entitled to dignity, fairness, and equal justice under the law.

And it shows the power of money, wielded strategically and with the expectation that our elected officials must represent all of their constituents, especially the most disenfranchised.

Right now I am feeling very lucky to be part of this very special journey. I feel very proud to work with so many committed partners - Equality Michigan, the Ruth Ellis Center, Affirmations, Kick, and the thousands of individuals who have become politically active in recent years. We must thank all those who have lent their financial support to build the capacity of advocacy organizations and all those who have lent their influence to build bi-partisan coalitions.

Onward and upward. Let's keep up the good work.

Kary L. Moss is the executive director of the ACLU of Michigan

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