Same-sex couples have a right to marry in all 50 states, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, and it would be difficult to describe that decision as anything less than a major civil rights victory — a "thunderbolt" moment of social progress as President Barack Obama happily described it. The stirring majority opinion written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy touches on the love and hope that causes same-sex couples to seek inclusion in "one of civilization's oldest institutions" and "equal dignity" in the eyes of the law and captures not only the importance of the moment but the sheer joy of newly-recognized liberty.
Yet for all the triumph of this groundbreaking advance, it would be wrong to assume that the push for equality is done. Even with the 5-4 decision, which tosses out state bans on same-sex marriage and recognizes that gay and lesbian couples have rights equal to their straight counterparts (somewhat belatedly: 36 states, including Maryland have already approved same-sex marriage), the LGBT community continues to face discriminatory laws on a variety of fronts involving marriage and family life.
Just two weeks ago, Michigan Gov. Rick Scott signed into law legislation that gives adoption agencies the right to deny gay applicants on religious grounds. In North Carolina, magistrates were recently given the authority to refuse to marry anyone for similar reasons. How birth certificates reflect parental gender references and whether health insurance plans cover same-sex spouses have also been contentious legal issues in state houses across the nation.
Only about one-third of states have laws on the books broadly protecting individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 31 states, it's perfectly legal to fire employees because they are transgender, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Discriminatory treatment in foster care, in housing, in restaurants, on the job and in many other venues continues to be a challenge for millions of Americans.
Some day, children will sit at the feet of their grandparents and ask to be told about what it was like in those prehistoric times when same-sex couples could be discriminated against. It will seem as distant and unfathomable as the days when women were not allowed to vote or blacks were owned as slaves. Yet that moment is still many years away. Witness what the Republican candidates for president had to say about the Supreme Court ruling just hours after it was issued — from renewed calls for a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's plea to "reject judicial tyranny" and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's description of the decision as "paving the way" for an "assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians."
How far this conservative push-back will go is anyone's guess, but even as the GOP candidates fume and snort, there are also signs there is little stomach for making marriage equality a centerpiece of their political campaigns. This may be because the latest opinion research shows Americans overwhelming accept marriage equality by a 3-2 margin. About 39 percent of Republicans share that view, according to the most recent poll conducted by Project Right Side and the American Unity Fund.
In their dissents, Chief Justice John Roberts claimed that the Constitution has nothing to say about marriage equality (apparently turning a blind eye to the 14th Amendment's equal protection guarantee), and Justice Antonin Scalia scoffed at Justice Kennedy's writings as pretentious, his "showy profundities" as "profoundly incoherent." Yet most Americans can recognize how tragically unfair it is to discriminate against loving couples — surely as unfair as the state bans on interracial marriage that were ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court's Loving v. Virginia ruling 48 years ago. As Maryland voters recognized in 2012, upholding the rights of same-sex couples to marry hurts no one — particularly not the institution of marriage — but is a lasting benefit to all as a recognition and support for love, lasting relationships, monogamy and stable families, and most particularly, for basic human rights regardless of sexual orientation.