Blog of Rights


Challenging the Arkansas Parenting Ban

By Matt Coles, Director, ACLU Center for Equality at 1:43pm
Prop. 8 in California wasn’t the only anti-gay initiative that passed on election day. Voters in Arkansas also passed an initiative prohibiting any cohabiting adult from adopting a child or becoming a foster parent. Since Arkansas passed a ban on marriage for same-sex couples four years earlier, the law effectively excludes anyone in a same-sex relationship. Yesterday, the ACLU's LGBT Project filed a lawsuit in state court in Little Rock challenging the initiative (you can read the complaint here).

The President and Hospital Visitation

By Matt Coles, Director, ACLU Center for Equality at 2:14pm

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

Early in 1978, I hung out a shingle and began practicing law with three friends on Castro Street in San Francisco. It was before HIV turned all our lives upside down, but we soon realized that hospital…

Supreme Court Bans Videotaping to Protect Prop. 8 Supporters

By Matt Coles, Director, ACLU Center for Equality at 3:16pm

The Supreme Court just issued one of its most disturbing decisions since Bush v. Gore in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the federal challenge to California’s Prop. 8. Ironically, the plaintiffs' lawyers in Perry, Ted Olson and David Boies, represented…

The Value of a Little History: The Myth of a Big Federal Fix

By Matt Coles, Director, ACLU Center for Equality at 4:55pm

(Originally posted at Pam's House Blend)

It's all over the blogs, the LGBT press, at LGBT gatherings: the way to get equality for LGBT people is with one sweeping federal law. There are two main arguments: 1) history — this is the way most minorities in America got equality; and 2) political — this is quickest way to get full protection for LGBT people. The problem is that the history is dead wrong and the political prediction ignores some fundamental truths about politics in America today, and how change gets made.

As I explain in an essay in this year’s ACLU report on LGBT rights, there are eight great federal civil rights laws on race, not one. The five modern laws came not all at once, but over 15 years (you can read the whole essay here).

The movement for legal equality didn’t start at the federal level, and didn’t end there either. Twenty-four states had laws banning race discrimination on the job before the 1964 civil rights act. On some issues — like discrimination in public accommodations and housing — states have stronger laws.

Change has typically started in progressive states, and while continuing to more moderate states, moved forward in pieces at the federal level. That doesn’t mean this is the only way to do it. But the political climate in America today, the nature of the issues and our ultimate goal all tell us that a tandem state/federal strategy is the way to go.

While strong majorities of Americans support some civil rights for LGBT people, that doesn’t translate into support in Congress or the federal courts. That’s partly a reflection of conservative dominance of federal politics for 20 of the last 28 years and partly an illustration of a political truth: a motivated minority will beat an apathetic majority every time. We may have more supporters than our opponents, but they have far more who are willing to vote and give money on the issue.

Court Bars Divorced Mom’s 9-Year Partner from Staying Overnight When Kids are Home

By Matt Coles, Director, ACLU Center for Equality at 12:57pm

I'm writing to tell you about a very important parenting case that is now in the Court of Appeals in Tennessee.  Here's the story.

Angel Chandler and Joseph Baker divorced ten years ago.  They had two children, a daughter, now 13…

Something to Be Thankful For

By Matt Coles, Director, ACLU Center for Equality at 3:58pm

We won the Florida adoption case yesterday. A Miami judge ruled that the ban on adoption by gay people was unconstitutional. And I got two new heroes out of the case.

The first hero is Cindy Lederman. She’s the judge who finally had the guts to hear the evidence on gay people as parents. I wrote earlier this week about the evidence we gave her, and how it showed that sexual orientation has no connection to parenting ability. Judge Lederman also had the insight to understand what that expert evidence meant, and its legal significance. Here’s how she put it:

As a result, based on the robust nature of the evidence available in the field, this Court is satisfied that the issue is so far beyond dispute that it would be irrational to hold otherwise; the best interests of children are not preserved by prohibiting homosexual adoption.

And then she did what followed inevitably from that finding: She declared the law unconstitutional and allowed our client to adopt his sons. (You can read her opinion here.)


Decision Tomorrow in Challenge to Florida’s Ban on Adoption by Gay People

By Matt Coles, Director, ACLU Center for Equality at 6:27pm

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Tomorrow we’ll learn the outcome in the ACLU’s latest challenge to Florida’s law banning adoption by lesbians and gay men. The judge has told us that she’ll announce her decision in…

Matt Coles: Who Cares About Marriage?

By Matt Coles, Director, ACLU Center for Equality at 10:01am

Originally posted on

Why — some people, including a lot of gay people, ask — do LGBT people care so much about marriage? Marriage rates are down in the United States, and…

Iowa and Vermont: The Politics of It

By Matt Coles, Director, ACLU Center for Equality at 1:32pm

Some week. The Vermont legislature voted to let same-sex couples marry, and the Iowa Supreme Court decided that it is unconstitutional not to let same-sex couples marry. Together, these two events are a much needed shot in the arm for marriage.

Iowans celebrate Supreme Court marriage decision.
(Photo: Alan Light, Creative Commons)

Iowa is the first win in a flat state without an ocean view. And the decision was unanimous. Vermont is the first time a state legislature (as opposed to a court) has opened marriage, and it did it by a stunning veto override.

Iowa and Vermont don’t erase the damage from losing Proposition 8 in California. They don’t have either the cultural or economic influence that the Golden State has. Still, there’s nothing like winning big to put the wind back in your sails.

Where the marriage movement heads now, though, is complicated. Iowa and Vermont will not be the start of same-sex marriage all over the country because that simply isn’t possible.

Winning marriage in four states has been politically expensive; in getting it, we also got amendments to state constitutions that block marriage in 29 states. There are just two ways to get marriage now in those 29 states. First, you could go to the voters to get the amendments repealed. That’s a very costly process, and one not likely to work in many of the states with amendments (like Alabama and Mississippi).

The Legal Importance of the Iowa Marriage Decision

By Matt Coles, Director, ACLU Center for Equality at 1:08pm

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

The Iowa Supreme Court decision striking down the state's exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is the third from a state high court to treat government discrimination against gay people generally as a serious constitutional problem (the other two are the California and Connecticut marriage cases). All three courts say that a long history of discrimination driven by prejudice should make courts suspicious anytime the government singles gay people out. While there are some differences in details, the three decisions in essence say that if the government claims that gay people are truly different (and therefore should be treated differently), it has to back the claim with proof, not speculation.

The demand for proof is a crucial. The argument that is most often used against us in marriage cases is that children do best with a mother and a father, and that marriage is set up to promote heterosexual parenting. For quite a few years now, there has been solid scientific evidence that sexual orientation has nothing to do with the ability to be a good parent. That's why we have support from all of the nation's major child welfare organizations.

But as long as the courts were willing to let discrimination stand if the justification for it was "conceivably" logical in the abstract, it was tough to win the parenting argument. But when proof is required — as the Arkansas case on foster parenting in 2006 showed — we are in much better shape.

These three state high court rulings are not limited to marriage; they apply to any form of government discrimination. So they should be a help in cases involving schools, jobs and most particularly, cases about adoption, foster care and parenting.

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