USA: Supreme Court rulings on LGBTI rights are cause for joy

By Jaime Todd-Gher, from Amnesty International’s Law and Policy team

For those who care about human rights, the two decisions handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 2013, were a cause for joy. In the United States we are much closer to full equality in the eyes of the law, regardless of who we love.

For thousands of families across the U.S., the judgments on same-sex marriage mean justice, equal protection under the law, and—on a more basic but equally important level—financial stability and family recognition.

While marriage is no panacea for freedom and equality, the harm caused by singling out individuals for unequal treatment based on sexual orientation and publicly scrutinizing their intimate relationships is undeniable.

The United States Supreme Court has now set this in stone in United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry. In Windsor, the Court overturned Article 3 of the divisive 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This provision forced the federal government to treat same-sex couples as unmarried, in turn, denying them federal benefits such as health care, bankruptcy protections, survivorship rights, and recognition and protection for children.

On a personal note, DOMA has caused great anguish. My partner is currently in the process of adopting our newborn daughter despite that she is already her legal parent in California, because we continue to live with the fear that her parental rights could be denied when we visit family in Missouri and Pennsylvania. The emotional, physical and financial impact of such discriminatory laws cannot be overstated.

The Supreme Court deemed Article 3 of DOMA an unconstitutional violation of equality and liberty, which, in and of itself, is cause for celebration. But even more so, the prose of this decision is striking for its civility and the respect it accords same-sex couples and their families. It reinforces the validity of same-sex relationships in a manner never demonstrated by Justices in years past.

The Court’s decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry is no less significant. The Justices invalidated a 2008 voter-led initiative (Proposition 8) which constitutionally prohibited same-sex marriage in the state of California. The Perry decision represents a victory on two fronts. First, same-sex marriages can resume in California, affording legal protection and solace to thousands of couples who want to see their relationships sanctioned in law.

Second, the Court implicitly affirmed that simply permitting same-sex marriage does not harm individuals or the community at-large. This alone is a tremendous victory, as opponents of same-sex marriage often spuriously claim some undefined “harm” to justify unequal legal protections.

Advocates in the U.S. have fought long and hard to curb prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) individuals and their families, and tirelessly challenged discriminatory legislation and policy through the courts.

These two cases represent the importance of checks and balances on the government through a functioning justice system and cultural change as a key platform for effective human rights advocacy. Human rights can only be realized when progress is made on both fronts. These decisions should be celebrated as symbols of democracy at work.

The Windsor decision stated in no uncertain terms that the U.S. Constitution prevents Congress from passing laws that treat an unpopular subgroup of society unfavourably. And the Perry decision affirms that same-sex marriage does not, in and of itself, threaten American society. While these decisions may not uplift all LGBTI individuals, particularly those fighting for basic means of survival, they are a beginning, a prohibition of targeted, state-sanctioned discrimination.

Same-sex marriage affects all of us. Oppressing one segment of society opens the door wide to oppressing us all on any front.

Amnesty International applauds these decisions for promoting the rule of law and working towards realizing human rights for everyone in the United States. But more than anything, we stand with the thousands of individuals in committed relationships across the United States who have just been told by the highest Court in their nation that their love matters and is cause for celebration.