We are All Now Safer in our Freedom

On the morning of June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a basic right, across the United States. The ruling in the case known by the name Obergefell v. Hodges was 5 to 4, showing a tightly split Court, but effectively invalidating all bans on same-sex marriage, whether brought into effect by legislation, referendum, executive order or lower court rulings. 

Here’s why this is good for people of all political and religious persuasions: 

The US Constitutional system provides for the rights of all, and specifically privileges the principle of equal protection. 

Specifically, the 14th Amendment reads, in part:

… nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

For those who maintain that the Constitution confers upon each state the power to decide whether some should be allowed to marry and others not, this particular section of the 14th Amendment is crucial. It is the states, specifically, that are limited in their power to provide unequal treatment. No state could allow slavery so long as any state provides more rights and privileges; no state could allow segregation, or poll taxes, or any specific kind of legal treatment designed to diminish the legal standing of any of its citizens.  

Your basic human liberty, as an American citizen, depends on this provision of our Constitution being vigorously upheld and affirmed.

The 14th Amendment was ratified on July 9, 1868, in the aftermath of the Civil War. It was intended to make clear that there could be no return to a situation where some human beings were treated as less than fully human before the law. The principle of equal protection means the law applies equally to all, and no whim of government can suddenly breach the civil liberties, the privilege of democratic standing, or the integrity of the human person. 

Without equal protection, the rest of the Constitutional fabric is much harder to uphold. The document’s force comes from its universal applicability, and its adherence to basic principles of fairness, open democracy, and justice. 

Between 1789 and 1868, there was no such standard, and the Constitutional order was nearly ripped apart. The brutality of the slave system was a campaign of unmitigated evil, in every sense; it is nearly impossible for most of us to conceive of what it would have been like to suffer that burden. For its first 80 years, our Republic countenanced and enforced a system which subjected human beings in the millions to torture, rape, routine brutality, and the constant fear of random killing. It took 8 decades of only half-true democracy, and 5 years of terror and bloodshed in our Civil War, to end that evil.  

We have come a long way since then, but it is important for all Americans to understand, equal protection is not only about marginalized or persecuted groups; it is an enhancement of the system that strengthens the protections for all of our rights. 

In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave—one of the most important books on the American experience of the path to genuine democracy—the one-time slave turned publisher, campaigner, orator and ambassador explains with unmatched human sympathy the kind of evil the sytem of oppression did to the spirit of the oppressor, as well as to the oppressed. With that kind of injustice at work, no human being could be truly safe in their exercise of moral free choice.  

The Fugitive Slave Act essentially denied full human liberty to all American citizens, making it a serious crime to follow the most basic moral principle of protecting one’s fellow human beings from harm. It was, in a very real way, pushing the country toward a totalitarian system where the basic liberties of all citizens were co-opted in support of the slave system. The system placed penalties on anyone who might work against the system that privileged oppression over equal treatment. 

That trend toward oppression was the very thing the United States of America was founded to counteract, and we are still, each of us, working to make sure we succeed, as a society, in doing that.

Scott Pelley put it well on the CBS Evening News, when he explained that:

The first American idea, that “all men are created equal,” has never been honored. It was aspiration, more than declaration. And so the struggle for progress has been the inheritance of every American since.

Pelley did the work of any true journalist, when he ended the week’s reporting with this bit of historical truth, philosophical range, and civic context: “The truths self-evident at our founding are not self-fulfilling. We the People are founding today the America that was promised.”  

Our citizenship is not an idle indulgence or a hobby to which we turn at intervals; it is an always active opportunity for leadership, in favor of democracy, from all sides. None of us is made freer because someone else’s rights are infringed; it is the root of all tyranny to connect one’s own happiness and political standing to the oppression or limitation of others.  

Between 1776 and 1865, this nation fought three full-blown wars in which the very existence of American democracy as such was at stake. It was another 100 years, before we were able to work up the collective will to declare that we were ready to end the standardization of unequal treatment. We are still working to acheive that first of all American aspirations. We all have a stake in getting there.

Thanks to the courage of the plaintiffs in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, we are all now safer in our freedom.

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