Not that it’s impossible, but it’s hard for any government, particularly the US government, to take rights away. What seems intractable, like laws mandating schools segregated by race or prohibitions on “interracial” marriage, disappear, and over time, so does polite support for them.
Since the 1980s, we’ve witnessed an immense and seemingly intractable battle of countermovements on same sex marriage, and for a long time, all the victories were on the “against” side. Over the last decade or so, however, autumn arrived, a leaf at a time, then whole baskets full, as country after country and state after state changed laws.
Massachusetts has sanctioned same sex marriage for about a decade, and the pace of new states dropping the prohibition has accelerated beyond the hopes of all but the most optimistic campaigner, sometimes by legislature or referendum, but more commonly, by judicial ruling. Mostly, however, it was more socially liberal states that reformed, leaving marriage equality opponents expressing confidence in their ability to defend the rest of the country (e.g.).
Last week Federal District Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled that Utah’s ban on same sex marriage violated 14th amendment protections for gay and lesbian couples. Both he and the appellate court refused to stay the ruling pending further appeals; county clerks, first in Salt Lake City but soon throughout the state, began issuing marriage licenses. Public joy and outrage attended the ongoing run of nuptials.
Historically, defining marriage has been the responsibility of the states–although the full faith and credit clause of Constitution compels states to recognize marriages performed in other states.
Even as public support for marriage equality has grown, such support doesn’t comprise close to a majority in Utah. As the state’s appeal winds its way up to the Supreme Court, supporters and opponents will try to organize in light of new facts on the ground, particularly marriage licenses and celebrations.
It’s got to be easier to oppose extending marriage recognition to slightly different (read: same gender) couples beforehand than taking such recognition away. Marriage opponents will be faced with the difficult task of organizing and mobilizing against distinct and identifiable couples. Maintaining strict moral rectitude in the abstract gets harder when the specifics mean trying to take away something valued from a relative or neighbor (watch health insurance on this as well). This is one reason why the strategy of coming out was so important and powerful.
Utah’s conservative political culture, buttressed by the institutional infrastructure of the Church of Latter Day Saints (whose members include a large majority of Utah residents) should provide the ideal setting for a powerful backlash–against marriage equality and against Federal intrusion in marriage rules. Will it? Or will the obligations of friendship and neighborliness trump the abstract?