The release of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas was akin to an atomic bomb going off in the United States. Armageddon, it seemed, had come. Yet, this apocalypse was not by the hands of our then-archenemy Soviet Union, but, through the actions of “traitorous” Supreme Court justices.
The anger and angst against the 5-4 decision was real. Mississippi Sen. James Eastland said, “On May 17, 1954, the Constitution of the United States was destroyed because the Supreme Court disregarded the law and decided that integration was right. You [whites who felt like him] are not required to obey any court which passes out [a desegregation] ruling. In fact, you are obliged to defy it.”
Even President Dwight Eisenhower could sympathize with those who were aghast at the possibility of blacks enrolling in classrooms alongside white children. While sitting next to Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren at a White House dinner in 1954, President Eisenhower told him, “[Segregationists] are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big, black bucks.”
Some of the justices themselves wrestled with integrating American society. Justice Felix Frankfurter observed that although segregation appears “invidious and irrational,” the Supreme Court itself could “hardly deny the existence of the sincerity and passion of those who think that their blood, birth and lineage are something worthy of protection by separatism.”
Justice Robert Jackson noted he was concerned that desegregation would put whites in the “unfamiliar and the unpleasant” position of having to adjust to regular contact with blacks. From the halls of Congress, to statehouses, to pulpits around the country, the outcry against this ungodly, abominable and ruinous Supreme Court decision was constant, loud and sometimes violent.
More than 60 years later, it’s apparent the world did not end, society did not unravel and America is still here. The same will be said decades from now as the Supreme Court’s ruling giving gays the right to marry is reflected upon. It will not have been the ruination of American society, or the great departure from the principles that founded it, as some are now claiming. On the contrary, it’s an example of the progress and inclusiveness that’s implicit in our democratic system of government.
Ours has been a democracy in progress, an unfurling and evolving process. At this point, it’s just doing so to accommodate those who love differently from what the majority has been accustomed to. But their love should be respected just the same.
Yet, if we listen to the detractors against the gay marriage decision, it’s almost as though we’ve been transported back to 1954. The language used by opponents to the Court’s decision has been strong and acerbic, from accusations the Court “created out of thin air an imaginary right for gay marriage,” to cries that “we must resist and reject judicial tyranny.”
Some have even advocated outright disobeying of the ruling and resurrected Southern Civil War and post Brown positions of “interposition” and “nullification,” discredited legal theories holding that state governments could prevent the federal government from enforcing federal law in a particular state, and that a state can “nullify” federal laws a state deems unconstitutional.
Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore recently noted America was founded as a Christian nation where ALL law flows from God and where the duty of the government is to promote and protect God’s law as revealed by Holy Scripture. Yet, as we look back on our history and at the laws that were erected to enslave, persecute, isolate, deny rights, etc. are we to say God would approve? Did God endorse or inspire the authors of such laws? By extension, is God a god of injustice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, which many of our laws at one time or another manifested?
Moore has also said the Supreme Court has “destroyed the institution of God” and that the Court’s decision violates the freedom to practice religion. Concurring, Jim Daly, president of the Christian organization Focus on the Family, observed, “We are also concerned that this decision will fan the flames of government hostility against individuals, businesses and religious organizations whose convictions prevent them from officiating at, participating in or celebrating such unions.” Conclusions such as these are unfounded and absurd.
The Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment protects clergy from being required to officiate same-sex marriages, and churches from being forced to marry gay and lesbian couples. What about affiliated nonprofits of religious institutions such as hospitals, schools and charities? Will the recent ruling lead to a torrent of lawsuits against such for any stance against gay marriage on religious grounds?
It’s highly unlikely because there is no federal law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Also, of the states that do ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (there are 22), most (13) have, at the least, written into their anti-discrimination statutes some protections for religious groups.
It has to be understood that what the Supreme Court extended to homosexuals were civil rights, not religious rights. Married same-sex couples will now enjoy the same legal rights and benefits as married heterosexual couples nationwide and will be recognized on official documents such as birth and death certificates. The world will not end because of this. Overly emotional objections to merely the extension of civil protections and basic fairness is unbecoming of us as Americans, but as we’ve seen, unfortunately, it’s nothing new.