Supreme Court spectacles, football, and same sex marriage

No one should think that the oral arguments conducted today and tomorrow in the Supreme Court–or the decisions the Court will issue this spring–will resolve the evolving politics of gay marriage, and gay rights more generally.  The spectacle of the argument, however, gives advocates the opportunity and spotlight to weigh in on the issue.

On the steps of the Supreme Court building, activists for and against marriage equality demonstrated, holding placards, chanting, and arguing about the Constitution.

It’s unlikely that the demonstrators will influence the Constitutional interpretations of the nine justices who will decide the cases.  (Also interesting, but probably not influential, will be Jean Podarsky’s attendance at oral argument.  She’s a lesbian who wants to get married; Chief Justice John Roberts is her cousin.) But there are other audiences: reporters walking through the crowds to get a whiff of the arguments will have colorful footage of people who care a great deal about the upcoming decisions; there will be great pictures in newspapers online and off, and video all over the web.  Activists across the country will see their side fighting for them, know that they’re not alone, and hear about how important their efforts are.

Everyone else will get the opportunity to hear activist arguments about same sex marriage, which are less likely to emphasize Constitutional scholarship than personal stories and public values.  The Court argument gives activist a chance to make those arguments in a spotlight that isn’t always available.

Over 100 groups, USA Today estimates, filed amicus curiae briefs.  Ostensibly, this is about providing the justices with additional perspectives on the cases–beyond the voluminous briefs filed by the parties to the cases.  More significantly, the amicus briefs gives a range of interests a chance to weigh in publicly on the issue.  Briefs in support of marriage bans came from religious organizations and conservative political groups while briefs supporting marriage equality came not only from gay and lesbian groups, but also from business interests.  Don’t expect anyone to give up after the Court issues rulings.

The oral arguments also give mainstream media an excuse to cover the issue–again.  The Sunday political tv shows featured segments on the upcoming arguments, which offered not only speculation, but space for advocates to rehearse their arguments.  Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo  appeared on CBS News’ Face the Nation (http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50143470n ) explaining why he has long supported marriage equality; growing up as a multi-racial child and witnessing prejudice, Ayanbadejo says, he thinks it’s important to be attentive to civil rights and discrimination.  He’s pretty good on tv, particularly for someone who makes his living doing something else.  (But have you seen anyone more effective than Evan Wolfson, who’s been practicing his arguments for decades?)

Scott Fujita, another linebacker, got a prime spot for an opinion piece in the Sports section of the New York Times.  Like Ayanbadejo, Fujita also makes the analogy to racial discrimination, noting that his father’s internment during World War II raised his awareness of prejudice.  And he notes the far more recent, and awful, experiences of gay men and lesbians denied access to the legal and social benefits of marriage.  Fujita concludes:

I don’t ever want to explain to my daughters that some “versions” of love are viewed as “less than” others. I’m not prepared to answer that kind of question.

Instead, in just a few short years, and in the same way we now sometimes ask the previous generation, I hope my daughters will ask me: “What was all the fuss about back then?” I’m looking forward to hearing that question.

Ayanbadejo, Fujita, and punter Chris Kluwe, along with a couple of dozen other current and former players, filed their own amicus brief. The court case gives them, and many others, the chance to take an extremely visible public stand.  (At this moment, the football players have a chance also to offer an alternative view of football’s gender politics.  See Philip Cohen for an overview of a less attractive view.)

When the Supreme Court considers a case, it also provides many others not wearing judicial robes an opportunity to make a decision as well.  Senators Rob Portman (Republican, Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (Democrat, Missouri) and Mark Warner (Democrat, Virginia) made a point of weighing in before arguments were heard.  They’re all speaking to a broader audience than the nine justices.  Ultimately, that broader audience is likely to be far more significant.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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