The Great Debate
Hanging in my office is the vote tally for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, sent to me by Senator Edward Kennedy soon after September 10, 1996. That day, I had watched from the Senate gallery as a bill to protect gay and lesbian workers from on-the-job discrimination based on their sexual orientation failed to pass by one vote.
Near the end of his engaging and informative e-book on the Supreme Court’s recent same-sex marriage decisions, To Have and To Uphold, New York Times reporter Adam Liptak makes a prediction: “The day will come when the constitutional question [over the constitutionality of a ban on same-sex marriage] will return to the Supreme Court for some final mopping up, perhaps when the number of states still banning same-sex marriage has dwindled to a score or fewer.”
In the wake of Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s announcement that his son is gay, and his son’s coming out prompting the senator to support gay marriage, it has become commonplace to assert that Republicans are about to flip-flop on the gay marriage issue. Activists on both sides seem to agree. The Log Cabin Republicans triumphantly declared: “If there was any doubt that the conservative logjam on the issue of civil marriage for committed gay and lesbian couples has broken, Senator Portman’s support for the freedom to marry has erased it.” On Sunday, Karl Rove appeared to take leave of his senses when he said he could imagine the 2016 Republican presidential nominee supporting legal same-sex marriage. And with the Supreme Court set to hear a challenge to gay marriage bans this week, many observers are predicting that one or more conservative justices will join with the Court’s liberal wing to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, and possibly California’s Proposition 8 as well.
Will Justice Anthony Kennedy’s support for a constitutional right to gay marriage doom the constitutionality of affirmative action and a key provision of the Voting Rights Act? To answer this question, legal scholars need to know less about constitutional law and more about human psychology.
Several years ago the trial judge presiding over the federal constitutional challenge to California’s Proposition 8 asked Charles J. Cooper, the lead lawyer defending the voter-approved measure, how the recognition of same-sex marriages affected heterosexual couples. Apparently caught by surprise, Cooper, a former assistant attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, candidly answered that he did not know.
In finally evolving to support marriage equality, President Obama has not only placed himself firmly on the right side of history with respect to an issue of fundamental rights and justice but he has also thrown down the gauntlet for Republicans, especially his presumed challenger, Mitt Romney.