Recently, I attended a wedding in Lumberton. The two grooms had been together thirteen years, and it was time for them to make it legal, so to speak. The flowers were gorgeous, as was the musical accompaniment, while the ceremony itself was both touching and modern, with a mixture of traditional criers and those holding up their cell-phones to record the forthcoming YouTube videos of the ceremony.
The guys were surrounded by their friends, but none of their families were in attendance, an indicator of how far acceptance of marriage equality has to go in this part of the country. But then, in the best traditions of LGBT culture, the meaning of family is broad and inclusive, and my partner and I were delighted to be included in this familial-like gathering.
But as I basked in the glow of this lovely event, and enjoyed the traditional southern spread at the reception, I could not help but wonder how this marriage could be perceived as intruding upon or eroding heterosexual marriages or in any way undermining the religious freedom or moral values of this country. While the ceremony was conducted by a gay pastor, reciting the words of the vows the two grooms themselves had written, the purpose of the ceremony, besides the celebration of their love and commitment, was to access the basic civil rights of marriage.
Historically, there is nothing traditional, or uniform, about the ways that state governments have apportioned these rights. Fifty years ago, for instance, it was unlawful for people of different races to marry in many states. Today, my two friends, joined in both a holy as well as a civil state of matrimony, do not have to worry about the disposal of their property rights, the ability to make critical health decisions about each other, or be compelled to testify against each other in a court of law.
But as we drove back to Garner, I could not help but wonder how long this marriage would last. I am not talking about their relationship, which I am sure will endure, but the legal relationship that this state, very much against the will of a majority of voters, has conferred upon them.
Like many other states in this country, marriage equality came to North Carolina through court action, rather than the ballot box. Periodically in this nation’s history, courts have occasionally led the way to greater progress and equality when state legislatures and governors were not quite ready – most notably under the Warren Court of the 1950s and 1960s, which ended bans on segregation and interracial marriage, issues as contentious in their day as marriage equality is now.
Sometime this month, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on marriage equality. Yet, despite an avalanche of editorial opinion in print and on the web predicting a gay version of Loving v. Virginia that will sweep away all current marriage bans nationwide, I remain skeptical of such a ruling, at least from the conservative block that currently sits on the court and that often includes Justice “Swing-Vote” himself, Anthony Kennedy.
Since this new century began, the conservatives on the court have sullied the reputation of this once august body with a parade of regressive decisions, including, among others, Bush v. Gore, Citizens United, Hobby Lobby and the decisions gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Considering the language of the two basic questions the justices agreed to rule upon, it seems quite conceivable to me that they will disappoint again by reaffirming the rights of states to regulate marriage, while at the same time compelling all states to recognize same sex marriages approved in other states. Such a decision splitting Solomon’s proverbial baby would leave it up to the states to let the political process work and repeal their voter approved bans on marriage equality. As the current debate over the role of North Carolina magistrates makes clear, such a process would likely get very messy.
I hope I am wrong about this prediction, but given that we continue to live in a new Gilded Age in which the conservative block on the Court regularly pounds the round peg of the law into the square hole of the conservative agenda, I am very concerned.
Should my prediction come true, however, I remain hopeful that such a ruling would galvanize progressives in this this state and around the country to the action that will be necessary to move us, at last, into the 21st Century. It’s just that the happy ending may end up taking a little longer than a lot of people expect.
Dr. Charles Beem is a Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.