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Edith Windsor, center, is interviewed at the offices of the New York Civil Liberties Union, in New York, on Oct. 18, 2012. A federal appeals court in Manhattan has become the second in the nation to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional. The ruling came in a case brought by Windsor.
This November, four states will be voting on marriage. Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota all have ballot initiatives that will either ban or allow marriage equality for all their citizens. In Minnesota, voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to prevent gay and lesbian citizens from entering into marriage. Maine, Maryland and Washington will ask their citizens to vote on legislation that has already passed through the legislature and been signed into law to allow all citizens access to the institution of marriage and the protections that come with that institution. Interestingly, all of these votes will come just weeks after the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional.
The case involves Edie Windsor, a New York woman who challenged the federal government to recognize her New York-based marriage. In its decision, the court found Section 3 of DOMA to be unconstitutional. Section 3 requires the federal government to treat legally married same-sex couples as single.
The question of marriage equality has both civil and religious implications. In fact, the majority decision by the Second Circuit Courts of Appeal is evidence of this. The decision states that: “[…] law (federal or state) is not concerned with holy matrimony. Government deals with marriage as a civil status–however fundamental–and New York has elected to extend that status to same-sex couples. A state may enforce and dissolve a couple’s marriage, but it cannot sanctify or bless it. For that, the pair must go next door.” (Windsor v. United States)
For religious institutions, the decision of the court reinforces that they will be free to act according to their own beliefs and theologies. The appeals court does more than just uphold lower courts decisions on the unconstitutionality of DOMA, it also upholds the right of every individual to exercise their religion as they see fit. Moreover, contrary to what anti-marriage equality organizations have tried to portray, decisions like this are clear examples of the freedoms and liberties religious organizations have in the United States. This case demonstrates that the civil institution of marriage has nothing to do with the religious rite of holy matrimony.
There is another important factor in Thursday’s court decision on the unconstitutionality of DOMA. Namely, when voters pass a law or a constitutional amendment to strip citizens of their rights, the US government, with its system of checks and balances, has the means to protect those whose rights have been taken from them. This is one of the many reasons why state initiatives to deny others their rights – in this case, the right to marry – are bound to fail at the end. As the anti-equality arguments used to pass such measures are held up to the rational scrutiny of our court system, they fall apart. As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Elsewhere I wrote about the imaginary “threat” to religious freedom should the states allow marriage equality. The decision by the appeals court Thursday makes it clear that this threat is nonexistent. Voters can pass a thousand amendments to their constitutions or block every legislative action to allow same-sex couples the protections afforded to all other families, but they cannot stop the holy actions of faithful religious communities that will continue to bless these marriages and their families. What these anti-equality groups do is spend millions of dollars in campaigns that eventually fail the test of history. In a generation from now such actions be seen with the same shame in which we look at miscegenation laws of the past.
The Second Appeals Court decision Thursday, like all the court decisions before it, has demonstrated that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act neither defends marriage nor strengthens it. Rather, what DOMA does is to prevent loving, committed couples from enjoying the protections that millions of other families have. Moreover, DOMA attempts to prevent thousands of clergy around the nation from providing the same pastoral care to all of our parishioners. The court decision makes clear that, under the law and the Constitution, we all ought to have the same rights and responsibilities. As a member of the clergy, I know that is good news.