One of my proudest moments was 12:01 am, Jan. 1, 2010. Three hundred people were at the State House plaza. The night was cool – well, cold – hovering around 11 degrees. Bells rang, mixed with cheers as our state became just the fifth to adopt marriage equality.
Months earlier, on June 3, on a warm – well, hot – afternoon inside the State House, Gov. John Lynch had signed House Bill 436, the law creating marriage equality, surrounded by 200 people. I sponsored that legislation, and remember it as a long, difficult battle with our opponents raising substantial funds to stop us.
Standing at both events, I wondered why we had to fight so hard. Why in a nation proud of the words “…with liberty and justice for all…” do we have to fight for equality and human rights?
Why did it take so long for people to be able to attend public schools without regard to race? It took a US Supreme Court decision in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, to establish that racial segregation was unconstitutional.
Why did it take so long for people to legally join in interracial marriage? It took a US Supreme Court decision in 1967, Loving v. Virginia, to rule laws banning such marriages violate the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of our Constitution.
Why did it take so long for the right of two men or two women to be married? It took a US Supreme Court decision on June 26, 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges, to say that’s OK.
Speaking for the 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “marriage is a fundamental right that all couples are entitled to under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which provides for equal protection to all citizens under the law.”
The next day in Portsmouth’s Market Square, 2,000 people cheered that decision at our inaugural Pride Day. The Herald quoted me while on stage: “You never know what another court may do in the future about marriage equality, but if we keep on fighting like we have, we’re always going to win.”
But, WHY did we have to fight so hard for what are personal human rights? President Jimmy Carter said, “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense human rights invented America.”
Through the years, our local, state, and federal court systems have protected many of our human rights. But it is clear that through the power of the majority, we can lose them. Therein lies the problem with letting politicians – with all the dark money that buys many of them – decide human rights in each state.
It makes no sense in a nation called “the United States of America” to have a patchwork of different human rights laws state-by-state, leading to more political division. For those many who feel there is corruption in politics, often resulting in the highest bidder (ie spender) buying office, do we want politicians to decide our rights?
In their 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade the US Supreme Court protected a pregnant woman’s right to end her pregnancy without excessive government restriction. Within a few weeks that same Supreme Court, with all new members, may strike down that decision and send the issue to Congress and state legislators, full of thousands of politicians hungry for another divisive issue around which to raise money for their campaigns.
What right is next?
One of the important tenets of democracy is that while the majority rules, the minority has rights – a central principle for our democracy to function. Those rights should not be left to people whose first allegiance is to get elected. We say these words often: “…with liberty and justice for all.” There is no room for politics in our Pledge of Allegiance.
5,494: the number of same-sex marriages celebrated in our state since Jan. 1, 2010.
Today’s quote: When the legendary Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court was sometimes asked about when there will be enough women on it, she said: “When there are nine. People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Next time: City charter changes, Part II
Jim Splaine has served variously since 1969 as Portsmouth assistant mayor, Police Commission member, and School Board member, as well as NH state senator and representative. He can be reached at email@example.com.