Supreme Court buoys gay cause, but no sweeping marriage endorsement

Supreme Court buoys gay cause, but no sweeping marriage endorsement

June 27th, 2013 by Joan Garrett McClane and Chris Carroll in Local Regional News

Michael Knaapen, left, and his husband John Becker, right, embrace after the Supreme Court struck down a federal provision denying benefits to legally married gay couples.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

POLL: Do Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage matter to you?

A SOUND OFF

"I'm not outraged. ... Today's result was positive. ... This doesn't change anything in the state of Tennessee."

-- David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee

"The young people get it. ... They'll look back on this period and say, 'Why were we so far behind? Why were we so silly?'"

-- U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga

"We are firmly in a post-Christian culture. We have to change tactics. ... Getting mad, angry, distraught, disgusted or despairing is not the ticket. ... The fall of DOMA as law in the U.S. in no way takes away the reality that God designed to love and bless humanity with marriage with one man and one woman."

-- Dan Wilson, director of Harvest USA's mid-south region, a Chattanooga-based ministry to homosexuals in the church

"Today's victory gives us additional momentum as we continue to mobilize and organize Tennesseans so that in time we will achieve LGBT equality in our own state. ... DOMA was the last federal law on the books that mandates discrimination against gay people by the federal government simply because they are gay, and today's decision takes down it's core."

-- Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee

"I don't think it will change anything for us in Tennessee. I hope that in the next 15 or 20 years it will be different for the other people coming up behind us. Tennessee will be one of the last strong holds if it is left up to the voters."

-- Allie MacRae, 50, a Chattanooga resident who has lived with her partner for eight years

"The forces of cultural decline may have won a battle in the fight to undermine traditional marriage, but they did not win the war. Today's decision by the Supreme Court merely affirms that the power to define marriage remains with the states. While other states in our union may feel differently, Tennessee has spoken clearly on this issue."

-- Tennessee Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville

"I think that it is a small step in the right direction. It seems like it is going to be a long journey. It opens the door for both sides."

-- Devon Armstrong, a former North Georgia resident who plans to marry his partner this year

The steps were packed, elbow to elbow. Signs jumped up from the nervous crowd as the decision came down from the U.S. Supreme Court and then trickled down through word of mouth, text message and Twitter.

And although the decades-long debate over the rights of same-sex couples to marry has been loudly argued left to right, it was hard to find a person who didn't want to hear this news: We won.

It wasn't the sweeping ruling that would open the door to same-sex marriage nationwide, but it was a victory nonetheless.

Around 10 a.m. there were tears and hugs, a surge of excitement on the steps of the court on Capitol Hill. A U.S. Army cadet from near Nashville was among the onlookers. So was a Georgia Tech graduate and a man who calls Alabama "home." Each of their home states ban gay marriage. Each praised the justices.

"It's simple: Discrimination is not constitutional," said Ricky Bradley, a 45-year-old native Alabaman who now lives in Texas with his partner. "We're normal people."

A 5-4 ruling with sharp dissents from conservative justices nullified the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 federal law that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman and prohibited legally married gay couples from receiving more than 1,000 federal benefits.

Another Wednesday ruling cleared the way for gay marriage in California, effectively allowing the nation's 13th state to recognize same-sex unions.

"By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute violates the Constitution," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the majority.

Still, opponents, including Justice Antonin Scalia, said the decision "arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to it's traditional definition."

Right now the definition of marriage is still left up to the states, but many wonder for how long.

The DOMA ruling, especially, lays important groundwork for future cases, said Clifford Rosky, an associate professor of law at the University of Utah and an expert on LGBT legal issues.

Across the country there are legal disputes over state laws that could climb their way to the Supreme Court in years to come, resurfacing the main question: Is it constitutional for states to ban gay marriage?

"When the Supreme Court is saying that opponents of same-sex marriage are demeaning people, it makes it sound like the handwriting on the wall," said Rosky. "The Supreme Court has now said that even in marriage, the Constitution required equal treatment."

Inside the Capitol, some political leaders from Tennessee and Alabama were reluctant to talk about the impact, saying it would take some study to know how it will affect their states. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and Alabama Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby all said they didn't want to comment.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., issued a statement that read:

"The Supreme Court's decision preserves the right of states to define marriage, and for that definition to be respected by other states, and that's the way it should be."

In North Georgia, state Sen. Jay Neal and state Rep. John Deffenbaugh said they didn't want to comment on the case because they didn't know about it. Another Georgia state senator, Jeff Mullis, didn't answer calls.

Still, other conservatives, including Family Action Council of Tennessee President David Fowler, said the ruling was a victory for opponents of gay marriage and for the 36 states that still ban it.

"The important thing is that the court did not find that there is a constitutional right to gay marriage," he said. "This doesn't change anything in the state of Tennessee."

When asked if he thought the language in the DOMA opinion indicated there could be legal questions to many states' constitutional amendments, he said he wasn't worried.

"I don't think anything is inevitable," he said. "History is littered with the inevitable that didn't happen. ... Nothing is inevitable except death and taxes."

But same-sex advocates are making gains in Tennessee, according to a Vanderbilt University poll released in May. Six years after a constitutional ban on gay marriage passed the Legislature, 49 percent of Tennesseans now support gay marriage or civil unions. Two years ago, a similar Vanderbilt poll showed 69 percent of Tennessee residents were either slightly or strongly opposed to allowing gay or lesbian couples the right to marry.

The American Civil Liberties Union plans to capitalize on the momentum of the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA by pushing harder for open schools and fair employment practices, and eventually Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU-TN, said they will be ready to take up the gay marriage battle in Tennessee.

Now isn't the time.

"I think Tennesseans will celebrate this decision," she said. "There will be a loud but minority opinion that says this is wrong because of the Bible."

Dan Wilson, who runs Harvest USA, a ministry in Chattanooga that counsels homosexuals in Christian churches, said he and many Christians are disappointed in the court's decisions, but he's not outraged. This is just another sign of the times, he said.

Christians know they are losing this battle politically and should start rethinking their approach to sharing their convictions, he said, and personal relationship and compassion, not public fury, will be the best way forward.

"I believe that this thinking has come about because a post-modern culture holds that the only truth is the truth that an individual holds for himself or herself. Any historically held truths that stand in the way of personal autonomy are target for deconstructing, dismissing and despising," Wilson said.

And while everyone was sounding off about these historic rulings, gay couples in Tennessee were filled with tempered enthusiasm and questions.

Allie MacRae, 50, has been with her partner in Chattanooga for eight years and because they have not been allowed to marry they had gone lengths to ensure each other's rights.

They gave each other power of attorney for medical care. They drew up legal documents directing what should be done with joint property after one of them dies. They pay for two costly life insurance policies.

So what do the historic rulings mean for them? Today?

"I don't think it will change anything for us in Tennessee. That will be for another generation, she said.

Email Joan McClane at jmccalne@timesfreepress.com. Email Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com.