Rarely has a quest for equality moved forward with as much progress in one year as the issue of legalizing gay marriage. At the beginning of 2013, nine states recognized same-sex marriages. Now, at the dawn of 2014, gay marriages are legal in 18 states through a variety of means. Seven states have seen same-sex marriages legalized through court decisions, eight states’ legislatures have enacted laws recognizing gay marriages and three states approved them by popular vote.
In part, what set the stage for this expansion of gay and lesbian rights is changing public opinion regarding gays and lesbians in general. Today, polls invariably show that a majority of Americans approve of gay marriage, or at the least, see no threat to themselves when couples of the same sex choose to marry. Even the Boy Scouts of America have come around — partway. This year, gay Scouts will be welcomed into local troops. But the BSA is still clinging to its wrong-headed ban on gay Scout masters — a loss of talent and resources for this venerable organization.
The real trigger to the latest expansion of gay rights, however, was the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision that struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional. DOMA defines marriage as only between one man and one woman. The act, passed in 1996 and signed by then-President Bill Clinton, was the basis for many states to enact similar legislation. Florida adopted the DOMA definition by amending its constitution in 2008, and the ban on same-sex marriages here remains firmly in place despite the changes in attitudes and laws elsewhere in the country and the Supreme Court DOMA ruling.
Speaking for the five-justice majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that, under the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, the federal government didn’t have the authority to define marriage — only states have that power. So, Justice Kennedy said, there is no justifiable basis for the federal government to treat legally married gay couples any differently than opposite-sex couples.
That decision undid DOMA’s long reign and opened the floodgates to a spate of lawsuits in various states that have since struck down state bans on same-sex marriage — the very latest being a ruling by a federal district judge in Utah in late December. It didn’t take more than a blink of an eye for gay and lesbian couples to head to the altar in what is one of the country’s most conservative states.
The Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling also helped military families by giving same-sex spouses the same benefits as heterosexual spouses. That only made sense, given that the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law banning openly gay and lesbian individuals from serving in the military was repealed two years ago. The repeal allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly, but it didn’t address the legitimacy of their legal spouses. Now, with DOMA’s demise, same-sex military spouses are on equal footing as their opposite-sex counterparts.
It’s a travesty that Florida is so far behind the curve in recognizing gays’ and lesbians’ marital rights today. Many local governments and corporations in the state — Disney, for one — give the same benefits to same-sex partners that opposite-sex couples receive. But gay Floridians still can’t walk down the aisle and legally tie the knot, a blatant violation of their equal rights that needs to be righted this year.