Last Friday, the Supreme Court handed down one of its most anticipated rulings. In a 5-4 decision, the Court found that gay people have a Constitutional right to marry and in so doing, marked a definitive inflection point in the country’s evolution on equal rights.
Not surprisingly, the decision was authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has cemented his legacy as the Court’s champion of marriage equality.
For years, marriage equality has been held up as the principle policy objective sought by the gay rights movement. Along with the right to serve openly in the military and the right to adopt children jointly, same-sex marriage has been the cornerstone of the most successful civil rights movement in contemporary politics. And it is worth noticing that no hot-button issue has ever demonstrated such a dramatic shift in public opinion. The Pew Research Center reports that in 2001, 57% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while 35% favored it. By 2015, those numbers had almost exactly flipped, with 57% supporting same-sex marriage and 39% opposing it.
Perhaps more tellingly, support for same-sex marriage had grown in just about every demographic group imaginable. Among people born between 1928 and 1945, support grew by 18%. White, evangelical Protestants saw a 14 point increase, compared to 16 points for Catholics and 24 points for people describing themselves as religiously ‘Unaffiliated’.
Not surprisingly, support among Democrats grew from 43% to 65%, but support among Republicans also grew, from 21% in 2001 to 34% in 2015. Self-described Conservatives saw a similar jump of 12 points.
Men and women both saw an almost identical increase in support, 21 and 22 points respectively.
In fact, the only demographic group that hasn’t shown a dramatic increase in support for same-sex marriage since 2001 has been black Protestants, registering an increase of only 3%; however, non-Hispanic black Americans have seen their support for same-sex marriage increase by three times as much.
In a dissent read from the bench, Chief Justice John Roberts lamented that the Court’s decision “[stole] this issue from the people”, thus “cast[ing] a cloud over same-sex marriage, making a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.” But the truth is that the evidence doesn’t support the Chief Justice’s concerns. Though some groups remain, on balance, opposed to same-sex marriage, the shift in opinion over time has been dramatic, unidirectional, and unprecedented.
Just as importantly, the intergenerational differences in opinion are huge: though less then half of Baby Boomers support same-sex marriage, three-fifths of Generation X and nearly three-quarters of Millennials do. In every state that has seen same-sex marriage legalized, support for equal marriage rights has increased as people see their neighbors get married, even as the firmament remains indifferently perched above them.
In short, the cultural fight on same-sex marriage is effectively over, and the Court’s decision is the final evidence of that. If you’re a supporter of equal rights and you have a bottle of champagne on hand, you wouldn’t be at all unjustified in breaking it out.
But, before you do, take a moment to appreciate that this isn’t the end of the line. Though that’s hardly a fact that gay men and women will need to be reminded of, it might be something that could get lost on their straight allies.
Marriage equality represents a tremendous victory, but it still leaves a lot of ground to cover. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 17 states offer no protection against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, while another 11 states offer only partial protection. Further, 28 states offer no protection against housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
In the south, Virginia outlaws discrimination against gay people by public employers. With that lone exception, no state of the Old Confederacy offers any protection against discrimination in housing or employment, regardless of whether it is committed by public or private entities.
Under the influence of Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court has moved steadily in the direction of recognizing the equal dignity and civic standing of all Americans, regardless of whom they happen to love. Last week’s decision was a major landmark along that road and away from the prejudices of the past, but it isn’t the end of it. So if you’re celebrating today, go ahead and savor the moment.
But tomorrow it will be time to put your shoes back on and hit the pavement.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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