Who”Owns”the Marriage Equality Issue?

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The last several weeks have been busy ones in the battle for marriage equality. The governors of Maine and New Hampshire signed laws that allowed same sex couples to marry. California’s Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Proposition 8, and we expected the New York State legislature to have a darn good chance of passing a marriage equality bill this session since the measure had already passed the Assembly and was working its way through the Senate – but then things all went haywire in Albany. All of these efforts were plotted, led, coordinated and largely controlled by lesbian and gay litigation and policy organizations. GLAD ran the plays in New England, and Lambda Legal, the ACLU’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights all played key roles in picking the plaintiffs, picking the state courts, and picking the state houses where the battles would be fought from Iowa to California to New York. Almost without exception, the struggle and the strategy to secure marriage rights for same sex couples have been orchestrated by organizations that “belong to” the lesbian and gay community. These groups have held the view that it was best to take a state-by-state approach, working through state courts and state legislatures and staying clear of any federal court or congressional effort to secure marriage rights.

The whole thing took an odd turn the other day however when a newly formed group innocuously called the American Foundation for Equal Rights announced that it had filed a complaint in federal court in northern California challenging the constitutionality of California’s law restricting marriage to different sex couples. AFER held a press conference on May 27th in which it produced two couples – one lesbian, the other gay – and two high powered and famous lawyers, Ted Olson and David Boies – both straight – who had filed a lawsuit in federal court the week before alleging that the California law violated the U.S. Constitution’s rights to Equal Protection and Substantive Due Process. The complaint in the case is available here, other papers here. It appears that AFER was formed exclusively or at least largely for the purpose of bringing this lawsuit. It’s board, which it revealed in a press release issued several days after the announcement of the lawsuit, is made up, in part, of prominent Los Angeles movie business types/good guys -some of them straight, such as Rob Reiner and his wife Michelle Singer Reiner.

boies-olsonAt the AFER press conference Olson and Boies stated emphatically that the California marriage/domestic partnership system established a separate and unequal regime that discriminated against lesbian and gay couples and denied them “the most fundamental of rights,” the right to marry the person you love. They noted how they had been on the opposite sides of important litigation – most notably Bush v. Gore – and while Olson was a conservative and Boies a liberal, they both agreed that the U.S. Constitution secures same sex couples the right to marry, and analogized the constitutional harm here to that recognized by the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia.

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Katherine Franke, cross-posted from Gender & Sexuality Law Blog

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