Same-Sex Marriage, Urban Discontent, and American Values

This past week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case related to laws banning gay marriage in about two-thirds of the 13 states who still do not allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.

These are maps showing the states that had and had not legalized gay marriage late in 2009 and early in 2015:

Same-Sex Marriage by the Map 2009

Same-sex marriage laws


I am very certain that the Supreme Court decision matters a great deal to gay and lesbian couples in those states whose laws are under review in this case. But, in terms of national policy, it now seems very clearly more a matter of not whether but when gay and lesbian couples will be able to marry anywhere in the United States.

Most of the news media has, however, been treating this case as if it were pivotal to whether gay marriage will be legally accepted across the United States, and that is simply not the case. Anything that is accepted in three-quarters of the states cannot be outlawed in the remaining quarter without creating all sorts of legal and other complexities.

Permit me a brief digression. As I have been watching the coverage of the riots in Baltimore, the media have been paying some attention to the extended political neglect of the poorest neighborhoods in our nation’s cities and the deplorable conditions under which the residents of those neighborhoods attempt to live. But very little has been said by members of Congress. With the dismantling of the Great Society’s anti-poverty legislation, and in the absence of any meaningful substitutes for it, the Civil Rights gains of the 1950s and 1960s have proven to be largely empty promises for many impoverished African-Americans and other urban poor. The only way to improve the performance of urban schools, to mitigate gang violence and influence, and to reduce the number of young people moving from truncated educations to prison sentences is to provide much fuller economic opportunities in poor urban neighborhoods. Abusive police are a symptom of a much broader and deeper set of issues that can be addressed in a meaningful way only if we are willing to engage in an extended and intensive national discussion about available solutions and only if we are willing to commit the necessary resources to implement those solutions.

There is, unfortunately, some parallel to the issue of gay marriage. Gay marriage has become a touchstone issue in the cause of equal rights for all Americans, but the issues related to fully equal treatment run much deeper and are considerably more complex. There are many laws related to employment and access to public services that will continue to permit some in our country to exhibit very damaging prejudice against LGBT Americans, even if gay and lesbian couples are legally permitted to marry in every state.

On each of these issues, we need to demand more than talking points from talking heads. We have to stop referring to the federal government as if it were the enemy and to start talking about how it can use its vast resources to provide all Americans with a real opportunity to have happy, prosperous, and meaningfully productive lives. Surely this should be a national priority for a nation whose founding document begins “We, the People.”


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