There’s been a lot of big news about same-sex marriage this past week, and with the issue headed for the Supreme Court it’s about to get a lot bigger. But it’s also an important reminder that marriage is not the finish line for LGBT rights.
To be sure, that court case could be a major triumph for millions of people across the U.S., potentially the culmination of a fight that’s been going on for decades. But it is far from the end of the LGBT battle for equality.
Take Oklahoma, for example, whose answer to to SCOTUS overturning their same-sex marriage ban was to propose a bill to rid themselves of the state’s involvement before marriage. If passed, marriages licenses would be approved by a member of a clergy (or other person registered with the county), instead of a clerk.
“The federal government will have to think of something else to push us around over if the bill passes into law,” Rep. Todd Russ, who authored the bill, said in a statement to the press. “The bill basically says we are no longer in the business in this state of issuing marriage licenses.”
Getting the State out of the marriage business doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and to its credit HB 1125, the bill in question, doesn’t define marriage in terms of sexual orientation or gender anywhere in the bill—essentially giving LGBT activists a lot of what they’re looking for in this arena.
But Oklahoma is in a part of the country where finding a clergy member to approve of a same-sex union might be a difficult affair. While it leaves a loophole open for officiants registered with an online entity (like the Universal Life Church or The Church of the Latter-Day Dude) and as many as 160 clergy in Oklahoma have already publicly declared their willingness to marry same-sex couples, the (alleged) goal of the bill still doesn’t seem to be met; namely protect state clerks from filing marriage licenses against their religion. The Oklahoman’s editorial board writes:
If a clerk believes issuing a marriage license to a same-sex couple violates his or her religious beliefs, how is requiring that same clerk to officially record a same-sex marriage substantially different (morally speaking)?
While HB 1125 dramatically changes some elements of marriage law, it preserves a substantial government role in marriage and still requires court clerks to play a limited, official role in all marriages that come through the door.
In a nutshell, HB 1125 changes state law simply to change state law — without providing meaningful benefit. It should therefore be shelved.
HB 1125 also won’t legalize recognition of same-sex marriages, the ban of which is in Oklahoma’s state constitution. Potentially, the most it would do is move marriage licensing from the hands of people federally-mandated to give said licenses to same-sex couples to clergy members who are protected by religious freedom.
This is the problem elsewhere in the country as well. Utah’s victory in the realm of LGBT rights came when legislators signed a bill that would protect approximately 55,000 people in Utah from discrimination while also balancing the wants of religious organizations. But as Slate reports, this isn’t a model for the rest of the nation:
The bill contains troubling exemptions for religious groups, allowing them to continue to discriminate in ways that would be impermissible in many other states and under federal law. In particular, the Utah law specifically exempts religiously affiliated nonprofits such as schools, hospitals, and social service organizations.
Consider the example of Burke Wallace, a football coach and English teacher at a private high school in California. He says he was fired from his coaching position after he was overheard referring to his husband “in passing.” A common conviction driving the Utah legislation is that the school should not be able to fire him for being married to another man. Yet under the law’s broad religion exemptions, a religiously affiliated private school could do just that.
Nonprofits like these can be huge employers, providing thousands of jobs. That is why they are covered under most civil rights laws, including the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Even churches are covered by the federal law, with narrow exceptions for hiring people of the same religion and for ministerial employees. Outside those limited exceptions, employment discrimination laws generally apply to all nonprofits, including religious ones.
…while civil rights organizations correctly supported the Utah bill, which provides important protection for LGBT citizens in hiring and housing, Utah should not lead the nation on this matter. Only against the backdrop of that state’s narrow civil rights laws should this law be seen as a victory.
The ACLU has said that despite their support of the bill their work for LGBT rights is far from over, including in Utah—even if it is one of the 37 states where same-sex marriage is legal.
And they’re right, the legal issues facing LGBT people are tremendous across the country: a study by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 22 percent of trans people reported that they had been harassed by a police officer due to bias, and over 53 percent report being harassed in a place of public accommodation. 20 percent of homeless youth in the U.S. identify as LGBT. The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy has found that as much as 43 percent of gay and transgender employees had faced discrimination in the workplace. These stats (and even more we don’t have room for here) can actually be higher, once race is factored in, with people of color disproportionately more disenfranchised than their white counterparts.
Without this being a false equivalency, the LGBT rights movement, like the civil rights movement before it, will not be solved overnight following a major piece of legislation. And while a lot of problems, such as access to healthcare and tax breaks, can be solved by marriage, it won’t change the minds of people who oppose LGBT rights just like that. And as Utah and Oklahoma have shown, those same people will come up with new ways to fight against legal advancements made by LGBT activists.
Only last year, California became the first state to officially ban the “gay panic” (also “trans panic”) defense, which are typically used in murder and assault cases to justify an attack. Meanwhile, Florida is moving forward with the bill to prevent transgender people from using bathrooms that don’t match their assigned genitals.
Marriage legality is great, but sometimes overcoming laws or opinions can take many years, and LGBT activists are still facing a fight that could be decades long. If SCOTUS sets a precedent legalizing same-sex marriage this June (which they look poised to) it will be a huge victory for LGBT people across the country, but for full equality they’re far from the end of the aisle.