Why states rights, religious freedom do not belong in a conversation about marriage equality.


Since marriage equality was legalized nationwide on June 26, right-wing opposition and reactionaries have protested the decision, arguing instead for states’ rights or religious freedom. Each and every Republican presidential candidate opposed the Supreme Court’s ruling under similar excuses, crediting their lack of support to either personal beliefs (religious freedom) or a resistance to “big government” (states rights).  What these protesters fail to grasp is that neither of these things have anything to do with marriage equality.

Opposition to marriage equality on the basis of religious freedom stems from a simple misunderstanding of what religious freedom means in the context of the First Amendment. As the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The First Amendment explicitly protects the rights of Americans to practice religion. That does not mean the right to infringe beliefs on others. The First Amendment also implicitly protects Americans from practicing religion, meaning they do not have to conform to religious norms of one belief system that is not meaningful to them.

Another opposition to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the basis of religion is an opposition to the use of the word “marriage”. These opponents claim that marriage was a word created by God to describe the godly union between a man and a woman. What these opponents don’t acknowledge is that we live in a secular state where religion does not control how we define functions of governance, such as lawfully joining two people together in a partnership from which they receive many government benefits, such as tax breaks — maybe it’s just me, but “marriage” has a much more succinct ring than that. What these opponents also don’t grasp, apparently, is that even if God created the word marriage, he also did not create the ability of his followers to dictate how others conduct their lives (read: freewill).

Other opponents to marriage equality claim that it should be decided by states or by popular votes by state populations. While this isn’t necessarily a horrible idea all on its own, it is ignorant of just how ready Americans are to deny each other basic civil rights when they have the ability to do so. During the desegregation of schools in the 1950s, opponents also claimed that the states should be able to decide; they sought the ability for states to decide so that the same states could block the desegregation of schools because of bigotry and racism. States cannot always be trusted to pass or enforce moral legislation; take for example any of the 20 anti-LGBT legislation that thankfully was not passed this session. This is why the Supreme Court is important: they are able to judge the constitutionality of government measures independent of flawed and sometime immoral legislators or constituents.

I understand pushing back against new policies that one does not agree with —having an active and vocal populace is the fundamental strength of a democracy. What I do not understand is people trying to rewrite the Constitution to fit their own narrow views and deny equality to others, simply because LGBT people are different from them. The Constitution loses all meaning when it is recklessly assigned to the defense of any given belief, but especially so when such a belief is in direct opposition to the ruling of the Constitution’s interpreters and the highest Court in the land. The opposition to same-sex marriage is playing a dangerous game by making this conversation about anything other than equality.

Smith is a humanities and history senior. Smith is the editor-in-chief.