Many young Americans don’t realize that until recently, two people of different races couldn’t legally marry. Starting in 1948, interracial couples could marry only in California, and interracial marriage remained illegal in some states until the 1967 Supreme Court ruling Loving v. Virginia. While interracial marriage has become an accepted fact of life since then, gay couples are still relegated to the same sort of archaic inferior status. That has been changing because of state courts, with Connecticut recently becoming the third to have its high court grant gay and lesbian couples the right to marry. Michigan should be next.
The Connecticut Supreme Court’s bitterly split 4-3 decision Friday puts the state in a class with only Massachusetts and California. Unlike California and Massachusetts, though, Connecticut’s high court went a step further, stating that allowing same-sex civil unions but not same-sex marriage violates the state constitution’s equal protection clause. As an inadequate appeasement, civil unions have grown in popularity, with Vermont, New Hampshire and New Jersey now allowing them.
Whether they allow same-sex civil unions or marriage, these states have one thing in common: a history of progressivism. Though Michigan has traditionally been a blue state on the electoral map, it is far behind on this issue. While Massachusetts officially legalized gay marriage in 2004, the state of Michigan banned same-sex marriage the same year, after 59 percent of voters passed a constitutional amendment with the change. Since that time, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox has interpreted the amendment to mean that same-sex partners of state employees can’t receive benefits either — an interpretation Michigan’s Supreme Court foolishly upheld this summer.
On the most fundamental level, what has transpired in Michigan has been wrong. First, voters fell for social conservatives’ fearmongering about the gay marriage’s supposed threat to the American family. Then, Cox took the law into his own hands and broadly expanded the amendment’s scope. And finally, the Supreme Court, dominated by four judges with a conservative social agenda, failed to call Cox out on his abuse. What is left is a state that’s largely unwelcoming to gay couples.
The effects have been seen here at the University, too. The University, as a state institution, was forced to comply with Cox’s interpretation of the decision. Until then, the University had a cogent system of providing benefits to the domestic partners of gay employees. But the University, given its progressive history and dedication to basic rights, was not about to let a myopic, unjust law get in the way of what’s right. As a result, it expanded its “other qualified adults” benefits program to include people who meet several very specific criteria — a roundabout way of providing benefits to gay couples.
The new protocols work as part of a fairer system, but they require people to jump through unnecessary hoops. If gay marriage were legal, the University and other Michigan employers would not have to spend so much energy trying to get past the red tape.
Our society is seeing a movement toward greater rights for gay citizens. It’s almost inevitable that in a few decades, banning gay marriage will seem as silly to future generations as banning interracial marriage seems to Americans today. So will Michigan be remembered as part of a 21st century Confederacy that stubbornly continued to violate basic civil rights? Or will the state go down in history as a locus of forward-thinking tolerance?