WASHINGTON -- The same-sex marriage battle won’t be settled with a Supreme Court decision, regardless of what the justices rule.
Should the court stop short of recognizing gay marriage, gays and lesbians will still press for the right to marry in the court of public opinion, not to mention the halls of justice and government. And should the court grant the right, millions of Americans still will refuse to rally to the decision of a court of nine men and women.
This week’s court hearings underscored how America’s view of same-sex marriage is changing. A majority now support it. But that change is being driven by a wide variety of forces – including popular culture, churches and the experiences of friends and families – rather than a court. That clash of forces might take years to settle into a consensus one way or the other, if ever.
While the court ruled against desegregation in the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, for example, questions of race still split the country for decades afterward, and race-tinged issues such as immigration and affirmative action divide Americans even today.
After the court established abortion rights 40 years ago in the Roe v. Wade case, the country remained split and still does.
“These court cases begin to settle things, but there’s not a finality to it,” said Democratic former South Carolina Gov. James Hodges, who’s now a consultant based in Columbia, S.C.
Court cases addressing large social issues can reflect trends already under way in society, seen in popular culture and taking hold in the country’s psyche.
The 1954 ruling on desegregation came seven years after Jackie Robinson had integrated baseball. In the years after that, white Americans were exposed to black artists such as Bill Cosby and Diahann Carroll on television. Similarly, gays and lesbians have become more widely accepted in society, in part as more of them reveal their orientation and are embraced by friends and family, and as the culture portrays them as part of the mainstream.
“Social change is organic,” said Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist group. “It takes time for people to accept different concepts and ideas.”
Major cases often follow two standard paths: They give the winning side direction and momentum, but they’re often muddled enough that the opposition also winds up energized.
Roe was a clear defeat for foes of abortion rights, but it had enough ambiguity about states’ powers that opponents to this day eagerly seek ways to weaken it. Even some abortion-rights advocates fretted that it was too sweeping, too far ahead of public opinion at the time.
“It’s not that the judgment was wrong, but it moved too far too fast,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wasn’t on the court at the time, said last year. At the time, according to The Associated Press, abortion was legal on request in four states and permitted under certain circumstances in 16 others.
The ruling was an important catalyst in making the nascent conservative movement a dominant political force. By 1980, it won control of the Republican Party, and it’s made opposition to abortion a staple of its platforms ever since. Social conservatives have broadened their agenda, but opposition to abortion “still energizes the base of the Republican Party,” said Gary Marx, the executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a conservative group.