Justin Peligri: The marriage debate isn’t over yet

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

If you were to look at the Supreme Court from a distance, you might not notice it’s under construction. But if you get close enough, you’ll see that the scaffolding covering the exterior of the building is masked by a mere picture of the real thing.

The physical changes the court is undergoing are fitting, though, given the social and cultural upheavals present on the court’s steps when I was there Tuesday morning.

It was loud outside as masses on both sides of the marriage equality debate protested outside the courtroom, while inside, lawyers and justices heard oral arguments on Hollingsworth v. Perry.

The case, which concerns the same-sex marriage ban in California, Proposition 8, could have sweeping effects. In fact, the national media has branded this court case – as well as the arguments on Wednesday over the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act – as the be-all-end-all of the American LGBT rights movement.

These cases are tremendously important in the scope of LGBT rights. But the decision the nine justices hand down in June may not create the sea change activists are hoping for.

Millions of people across the country struggle with – and sometimes actively oppose – marriage equality and gay rights in general. But regardless of the court’s ruling, people’s minds can’t be changed overnight.

The court cases have drawn media attention on a national scale. But true change happens most effectively when it’s on the local level through a strong grassroots effort. Legal changes are essential, but so are the cultural ones that take years to solidify.

And even though it will take time, that reality shouldn’t discourage us. It should inspire activists to work even harder.

Let me be clear: Marriage equality is an essential issue. LGBT rights are the civil rights of the modern era, and were the Supreme Court to uphold flawed measures like Prop 8 and DOMA, it would hold back progress and perpetuate oppression.

And yet, the justices expressed skepticism Tuesday about their future ruling on Prop 8.

“If the issue is letting the states experiment and letting the society have more time to figure out its direction, why is taking a case now the answer?” Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked.

And Justice Anthony Kennedy, who some say will be the deciding vote, questioned whether or not the court should have taken the case in the first place.

It’s frustrating to hear that even liberal-leaning justices might be reluctant to rule on Prop 8. But perhaps their hesitation is an important wake-up call for the LGBT-rights movement.

Slowly but surely, across the nation, people are understanding the value in expanding marriage rights. In November’s election alone, three states joined the growing list – which now includes nine states and the District – to legalize same-sex marriage.

And in the past two weeks, prominent Democrats like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., announced support for the movement. Even other politicians, like Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, have come out in favor of equal marriage rights under the law, locking in their footing on the right side of history.

But the issue of LGBT rights is still emotionally charged. At the rally, representatives from the National Organization for Marriage and the infamous Westboro Baptist Church walked through the street shouting “one man, one woman,” and holding red, eerily Medieval-looking tapestries bearing the words “tradition, family, property.”

Clearly, there are millions of people across the nation that still need to be convinced. And maybe some never will. But even though striking down old legislation can only help the cause, it’s not the only step that should be taken.

Controversy surrounding the marriage equality debate still looms large.

In the same way that the Supreme Court building’s facade can try to hide the construction underneath, rulings in favor of marriage equality will merely give the impression that the underlying issue has been completely resolved.

Justin Peligri, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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