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Marriage Equality Does Not Mean Total Equality

By Anthony Doran, student, SUNY Empire State College

July 9, 2015

Wedding rings, two gold bands rest one atop the other on a light wood grain table. The nation finally got an answer about whether or not same sex couples would be granted the right to marry in all 50 states. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the right to marry is protected under the Fourteenth Amendment, making same sex marriage legal across the country. It is a proud moment for the LGBTQ community, and the timing of the ruling could not have been more significant. It was two years to the day from the U.S. v. Windsor decision that struck down Article III of the Defense of Marriage Act. It was ten years to the day of the Lawrence v. Texas decision, where in his dissent, Justice Scalia predicted the decision would lead to same sex marriage. And it was the Friday before the country’s original and largest Pride celebration, New York City Pride. But all that aside, the victory is bittersweet.

Despite same sex marriage now being legal in all 50 states, only 22 states provide protections from discrimination in public accommodations, housing and workplaces for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Of those states, only 18 and the District of Columbia include laws to protect their transgender constituents. Because of this discrepancy, in 28 states a couple can legally marry and at the same time face discrimination without recourse.

Religious freedom is often cited as grounds for denying LGBT people equality. Under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, Congress protects a person’s religious beliefs and acts made in the name of those beliefs. For example, Christian conservatives contend homosexuality is a sin and denying homosexuals equal treatment is in line with their religious beliefs. Because individual freedoms are such an integral part of this country’s foundation, any perceived infringement on those freedoms fuels intense debate.

On the other hand, the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from denying equal protections to any person. In the past, the equal protection clause has been used to override religious freedoms when Christian schools used it for the basis of prohibiting enrollment of African American students. And most recently, it has been used to grant same sex couples the right to marry.

In order to eliminate this disparity in equality, there must be reconciliation between religious freedom and equal protection. Some organizations, including the federal government, have taken actions to protect LGBTQ people in the workplace. President Obama signed an Executive Order prohibiting discrimination for all federal employees and contractors. The Department of Defense has also recently named sexual orientation as a protected class. On the other side, conservatives have taken action by passing laws in the name of religious freedom. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a law that allows adoption agencies to cite religion when denying service to same sex couples, and North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill that allows clerks to deny marriage certificates based on their religious beliefs.

Marriage equality is not the finish line for the LGBTQ community, rather just one of the many mile markers on the path to equality. With both sides positioning to advance their interests, the debate for full equality seems to be just getting started.

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