June 26 is the most historic date on the LGBT civil rights movement’s calendar.
It is the day in 2003 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not enforce laws prohibiting same-sex adults from having intimate relations. It is the day in 2013 when a Supreme Court procedural ruling enabled same-sex couples to marry in California.
And it is the day in 2013 when the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not deny married same-sex couples the same benefits it provides to married male-female couples.
While the decision that allowed couples in California to marry provided important momentum to the marriage equality movement, the decisions in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas and 2013 U.S. v. Windsor cases are undeniably the most important Supreme Court decisions ever issued on LGBT-related matters.
Lawrence brought a crashing end to the longstanding presumption by society and the law that gays were “deviate” and should be singled out for disfavor.
“When homosexual conduct is made criminal by the law of the State, that declaration in and of itself is an invitation to subject homosexual persons to discrimination both in the public and in the private spheres,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the 6 to 3 majority in Lawrence.
“…The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime. Their right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without intervention of the government.”
And it was Justice Kennedy who wrote the 5 to 4 majority decision in Windsor last year, striking the key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that barred every federal entity from treating married same-sex couples the same as married heterosexual couples for the purpose of any federal benefit.
“The Constitution’s guarantee of equality ‘must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot’ justify disparate treatment of that group,” wrote Kennedy in Windsor.
“….DOMA’s unusual deviation from the usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage here operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with the federal recognition of their marriages. This is strong evidence of a law having the purpose and effect of disapproval of that class. The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.”
“….DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition,” wrote Kennedy.
“This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage. The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects…. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.”
Kennedy’s words in both Lawrence and Windsor have been repeated in numerous court decisions since. And the powerful influence of words and decisions has almost obscured the fact that they were narrow victories.