What an amazing and historic week it has been for the cause of gay rights. On Wednesday, for the first time in our country’s history, a sitting President of the United States said that he supports the freedom to marry for gay and lesbian couples. President Obama’s remarks carry incredible symbolic importance, and his explanation of the evolution in his own thinking that brought him to this point will be something to which millions of Americans can relate. It is representative of a journey that many men and women – both young and old – have taken in coming to the conclusion that what marriage is really about is love and commitment, and that is something that is true for both gay and straight couples.
While many were rightly cheering President Obama’s statement and what it will do to advance fairness and equal treatment under the law for all Americans, the U.S. House of Representatives was busy trying to roll back repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) and open service for lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members, as well as trying to score cheap political points at the expense of gay and lesbian couples. The contrast could not have been starker.
Wednesday, during debate on the National Defense Authorization Act in the House Armed Services Committee, members voted in support of two anti-gay amendments. The first, offered by Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), would prohibit Defense Department facilities from being used for private marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, even where state law permits such marriages. The amendment totally ignored the fact that such facilities are already available for use by service members for a wide range of functions and ceremonies, including weddings, funerals, baptisms, confirmations, and other events. The Palazzo Amendment would deny gay and lesbian service members equal access to Defense Department facilities based on nothing more than their sexual orientation. Armed Services Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said of this amendment:
These men and women [gay and lesbian service members] serve with honor and distinction and this amendment sends a message that their service is not valued. I fully disagree with that message…
The other amendment, offered by Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), would provide a dangerous license to use religion to discriminate against gay, lesbian and bisexual service members. The amendment purports to ensure that DADT repeal and open service does not infringe upon the free exercise of religion by, and rights of conscience of, members of the Armed Forces, including chaplains. The Akin Amendment totally ignored the fact that all service members’ Free Exercise rights are already expressly protected by the First Amendment, as well as under the Military Equal Opportunity program. The Akin Amendment is really a not-so-clever effort to raise false fears and give a wink and nod to discriminatory treatment of certain service members based on their sexual orientation.
Meanwhile, also on Wednesday, on the House floor, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) offered an amendment to the annual Justice Department appropriations bill to say that funds could not be used in contravention of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Huelskamp Amendment was, to put it nicely, a solution in search of a problem. While there are multiple legal challenges to DOMA working their way through the federal courts, it is still binding. This amendment would serve absolutely no purpose other than to score political points at the expense of gay and lesbian couples. I guess in the end that was kind of the whole point. Thankfully, 171 representatives, including seven Republicans, voted no. It wasn’t enough to defeat the amendment in the House, but it was a clear indication of significant opposition to anti-gay grandstanding on the House floor.
Despite the election year pandering from some House members desperate to throw “red meat” to social conservatives, nothing can change the fact that the tide has turned in an ever-increasingly hopeful direction for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Elected officials who are politically smart should recognize this shift and understand that being on the side of fairness and equal treatment under the law has more benefits to it than just being the right thing to do. Those politicians who continue to demonize and wage political attacks against the rights of LGBT people will find soon enough that they are representing the views of a dwindling few, which isn’t exactly a recipe for success.