Lessons from Marriage Equality

Lessons from Marriage Equality

By Zachary Weil

Something happened in the U.S. a couple of weeks ago that hasn’t happened in a long time…and it was good. On June 26th, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that same-sex couples were guaranteed the same fundamental right to marry as heterosexual couples. I don’t know about you, but on that day I held my head a little higher; I felt a little prouder to be an American.

What made this ruling even better was the way the Court spoke about marriage equality. Its opinion wasn’t narrowly tailored in scope or masked in technicality. It was a declaration — clear, simple, eloquent and rooted in the deepest principles of our Constitution — the heart and soul of the document that takes us back to Locke and the philosophy that guided the Founding Fathers — that certain rights to live life, experience liberty and hold property (pursue happiness) are inalienable and absolute. If this sounds overly idealistic and romantic read the Declaration of Independence today and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

Without getting too bogged down in Supreme Court history, let me just say that the Court hasn’t evoked the Due Process Clause in this “substantive” way for some time now. And it got me thinking how the structure of the opinion — bold, full of conviction and unafraid of the scope and scale of its determination was really a metaphor for the marriage equality movement. And, it’s a lesson we can all draw from.

I often say that our country has lost the ability to do great things on a grand scale — that the days of harnessing a popular desire to do good by setting ambitious goals and meeting them with national focus and alignment haven’t been realized since the days of Apollo when pencils, slide rulers and unwavering conviction got us from the Earth to the Moon.

The push for marriage equality would never have culminated the way it did a few weeks ago had it started with anything less than a Kennedy-esque call-to-action that marriage equality was not only going to happen, but that it would be realized within the lifetimes of those currently afflicted by the injustice. From the get-go, marriage equality lacked the self-fulfilling defeatism we subconsciously inject into the other existential political and social issues of our time (energy, environment, gun control, money in politics, etc.)

The execution of the movement was perhaps even more inspiring — communities became incapable of ignoring or being ignorant of marriage equality as an issue because millions of gay couples and their families chose to share their stories and live their lives openly and publicly. Their solidarity was contagious, leading to a growing understanding that love was love — that family was family. This change in popular sentiment manifested itself in referendums at local and state levels. For every setback, there was never talk of capitulation — only a decision to try again.

At the legal level, lawyers like David Boies and Ted Olson made it their mission to craft their cases with meticulous precision, finding plaintiffs so perfect in the public eye that nothing about them as individuals would detract from the issue they represented as their cases made their way through the courts. Making the same argument the Supreme Court eventually used in its decision, Olson and Boies established a legal claim rooted in substantive due process, arguing that equal protection under law and the inalienable right to pursue life and liberty made marriage equality a Constitutional “no-brainer.” They spoke with eloquence and clarity — they simplified the issue in the eyes of the public and they made progress.

Is it really a surprise then that in just a little over 10 years, from the point in 2003 when Massachusetts became the first state to recognize gay marriage to June 26, 2015 when the United States Supreme Court concluded marriage equality was guaranteed by the Constitution that marriage equality would be fully realized? In the grand scope of things, maybe 12 years was unexpectedly fast even for those pushing for change in the immediacy. For others, 12 years was tragically too slow (one of the plaintiffs’ partners died of ALS before the case was decided). The point I’m trying to make is that marriage equality happened and it happened on a national scale because our country actually came together, addressed a problem and resolved it. And the way it was done shows me that we are still capable of solving big issues, not incrementally but with the right momentum, focus and alignment, with broad, sweeping action.

The ultimate success of the marriage equality movement shows us that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness isn’t just rhetorical flourish to make our Constitution sound pretty. When we choose to take the language seriously, it can take us places. Applying it to other issues: if we choose to take our fundamental right to life seriously, let’s finally make meaningful progress on gun control. If we stand firmly behind our inalienable right to liberty, then let it be the impetus for a national, unrelenting movement against special interests and money in politics. If we cherish our right to property and the pursuit of happiness, let it be the backbone of a revolution against climate change and the protection of our environment, if not for us then for the future of Americans yet to come who will inevitably look back on June 26, 2015 as a moment when we did come together as a country and make real change. The only question remaining is whether marriage equality will be an exception to the rule or the beginning of a return to the spirit of Apollo — a time when we truly believed in the ability to move mountains.