April 18, 2014

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POLITICS & PREJUDICES

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Battles Lost & Won

Well, the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence is upon us again, and, as everyone not trapped in a mine shaft knows, we’ve just had a bunch of momentous court decisions.

Basically, the progressive interpretation of the scorecard reads that it was one hell of a good week for gay Americans, and a not-so-good one for Voting Rights.

Essentially, the U.S. Supreme Court basically ruled the misnamed federal “Defense of Marriage Act” was unconstitutional. In a separate case, the court restored a law making same-sex marriages legal in California.

True, they did the latter only on technical grounds, and the ruling in the federal case does not directly strike down state laws outlawing same-sex marriage, such as the state constitutional amendment Michigan voters adopted in 2004.

But the momentum is clearly with those who believe people should be free to marry whomever they wish. The fact that the high court didn’t strike down state laws outlawing gay marriage doesn’t mean they still might not.

Indeed, Justice Antonin Scalia, a bitter opponent of same-sex marriage, complained in his dissent that the majority opinion might easily also be applied to state laws.

Members of Equality Michigan are gearing up to put a new constitutional amendment on the ballot three years from now, designed to repeal the old one and make same-sex marriage fully legal in Michigan.

They clearly want to wait for a presidential election year, since turnout is likely to be higher — and because with every passing year, the percentage of those who believe everyone should have the freedom to marry increases.

However, they may not have to wait until 2016. Several months ago, a federal judge in Detroit, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, postponed a ruling on a gay adoption case until the U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week.

Now that the SCOTUS decision is known, Friedman could very well soon declare Michigan’s constitutional amendment invalid, on grounds similar to those U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy cited in his ruling last week.

In earlier remarks from the bench, which involves two women nurses from Hazel Park, Friedman appeared to be skeptical whether the Michigan amendment passes muster.

If he should overrule it, the amendment would be null and void unless a higher court reinstated it. Friedman, by the way, is a conservative appointed by Ronald Reagan.

In an entirely separate case, the same day the Supreme Court made its ruling, another U.S. District Judge, David Lawson, blocked a two-year-old state law forbidding public employers from giving health benefits to domestic partners of government employees.

Essentially, he ruled the law had no real purpose other than to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Judge Lawson also hinted strongly that Michigan’s 2004 amendment might well not pass federal muster, since it “constitutionalized discrimination against gays and lesbians.”

The bottom line is that same-sex marriage is here to stay. Within a few years, it will probably be legal in a majority of states. It is also likely that future court decisions will force other states to accept same-sex partners as legally married.

What that means is that gays may not be able to get married in Utah or Alabama, say. But a gay couple married in Massachusetts ought to be able to live in Utah without fear their marriage won’t be recognized or their benefits terminated.

Predictably, Gary Glenn, the president of the misnamed — and hate-filled — American Family Association of Michigan, sounded the only ominous note within last week’s flurry of court activity after he sent out a letter indicating he thinks the U.S. Supreme Court ruling protecting domestic partner benefits will be terrible … “unless Congress exercises its constitutional authority to ignore the court’s opinion.”

That’s wonderful. So now conservatives are calling for open defiance of one federal branch by another? What if Richard Nixon had ignored the Supreme Court’s authority to order him to turn over the tapes?

What if Congress ignored the court’s opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission and outlawed corporate campaign spending?

What we would have is anarchy.

Fortunately, not even many of his fellow wingnuts take Glenn very seriously, as he found out when he tried to run for the U.S. Senate last year.

But if liberals were overjoyed by the rulings on same-sex marriages, they were devastated the day before, when the justices, in another 5-to-4 decision, with Anthony Kennedy again the decision-maker, voted to gut the Voting Rights Act.

Almost unbelievably, on the June morning that decision was announced, a busload of Michigan teenagers and their chaperones were completing a two-week tour of the South, re-creating the route of the Freedom Riders and visiting major places that were crucial to the civil rights movement.

President Lyndon Johnson believed the Voting Rights Act itself might not have passed if it hadn’t been for a white woman from Detroit named Viola Liuzzo, who volunteered to help drive exhausted people after a voting rights march in Alabama in April, 1965; she was murdered by a car full of Klansmen.

The kids and Dean Robb, an 89-year-old attorney who is still fighting for civil rights, were at her graveside that morning. Then, “as we were marching across the Edmund Pettus celebrating Viola Liuzzo’s life, (Chief Justice John) Roberts’ gang of five was undoing Viola’s real monument. How ironic.”

I saw his point. Robb, by the way, represented her family in an unsuccessful suit against the federal government.

Yet, there could be hope here. All sorts of Machiavellian motives are being attributed to the chief justice’s reasons for voiding a key provision of the act. But it soon became clear that some of those attacking the ruling hadn’t read it.

To my surprise, Roberts wrote that “voting discrimination still exists; nobody doubts that.” He went on to say that the intent of the law is still valid. But he found it unconstitutional because it is based on data and assumptions a half-century old.

Some of the act is indeed outdated. The world is indeed different. And, with the exception of Clarence Thomas, the justices in the majority invited Congress to write and pass a new Voting Rights Act.

Some think this was a cynical and insincere ploy; earlier in the week I felt this might be next to impossible, given the strident ideological nature of the Republicans — who control the House. But I may have spoken too soon.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) apparently was moved by a trip he took with his sainted fellow congressman, John Lewis (D-Ga.), whose skull was fractured fighting for civil rights. Cantor now supports fixing the Voting Rights Act.

So, instead of moaning, all of us who agree should be lobbying Congress to do just that. Sure, that might be hard. But not nearly as hard as what Viola Liuzzo or Medgar Evers did.

Charles Pugh and Me

I have never run for office, am not running for office and can’t imagine running for office.

However, in the interest of full disclosure, I want to reveal that I was giving a teenage boy an expensive present right when Pugh was getting into trouble for doing so. In my case, it was my godson, who is turning 16. The present was my 2000 Volkswagen no-longer-very-new Beetle.

The difference is that I told his mom I was going to do this several years ago, if the kid behaved himself and did well in school.

Telling the mom makes all the difference, Charles; and showing up for work too. Now, please, I’d like to ask the media to let me try to find some peace.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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