Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness

What an amazing document - the United States Constitution. I’m not a constitutional scholar, by any means. In fact, the greater reality is that every time I open my mouth or pen some words, I reveal the depth of my stupidity. I really do. I’m sure I’m going to do a lot of that in today’s post, but maybe you’ll cut me some slack. I hope so.

I recognize that so much of how we see our world is colored by our experiences. It really is that plain and simple. Judges can’t help it. Jurors can’t help. Moms and Dads and people all over the world can’t help it. For each of us – everything we do and say and think and feel is but a consequence of our experiences.

I’m not much into politics. I find the subject really disheartening because I believe the only way change can occur is if people get behind causes and do something to create the change they seek. But because so much of politics today is intertwined with the machine of commerce, too much falls through the cracks. That’s why I believe “Change” can’t and won’t come from any government. Instead, I believe real change can only happen personally. Individually. Locally. One person at a time.

It’s why families are so important. Each person born is automatically (for better or worse) inculcated by those that surround them. Their parents and siblings, or caregivers for those without families, create the blueprint by which they end up seeing the world, at least initially. Families and caregivers are so important it’s why I think Mother Teresa, on the day she received her Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 responded to the question of “What can we do to promote world peace?” with “Go home and love your family.”  Regardless of your views about Mother Teresa, I think she hit that one square on the head.

The subject of family is important to me. I grew up in a big, close-knit family, and I’m fortunate to have one of my own today. There’re just three of us in my nuclear family, but it never really feels like that because there are so many other family members involved, daily, in our lives and vice versa. We don’t always get along. We rarely all see eye to eye. But, at the end of the day – we love each other.

It’s for that reason that I get apoplectic when I hear politicians talking about things like family. Since we’re in the middle of the 2012 Primary, politicians are doing a lot of that lately, and to someone like me, it ain’t fun.

I don’t have the answers for what will make the world a better place or what’s right for you and yours. I only know what I deal with on a day to day basis and what makes up my life. And those things color what I think about when I hear these politicians.

I’m encouraged when I hear Mitt Romney close out a debate with a perfect sound bite - quoting the United States Declaration of Independence
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
It’s hard for me to stomach though when just a few minutes earlier, in response to a question about marriage, he says: 
...something other than the relationship between a man and a woman, I think, is a mistake….we want to encourage, through the benefits that we associate with marriage, people to form partnerships between men and women and then raise children, which we think will – that will be the ideal setting for them to be raised.
Good luck with that, dude. Seriously. The world contains nearly 7 billion people. The United States contains more than 300 million of them.  What constitutes a family cannot be defined and/or mandated by any government or politician or organization.

Regardless of what you think about gay marriage, how do you square his latter sentiments with those espoused in the Declaration of Independence? Especially when you consider that marriage is a right conferred by the government, which, as pointed out by Romney, conveys numerous privileges and benefits upon those who are able to marry?

When I watched the debates Saturday, I also did some tweeting. One of the things I tweeted was a reference to a United States Supreme Court case, decided in 1954. That case was Brown v. Board of Education. It’s a beautiful piece of work, so simply written, and it’s an opinion that helped usher in the Civil Rights movement and the creation of laws that still stand today outlawing discrimination against people on the basis of their skin color.

Because of that case and the subsequent legal requirements it engendered, most reasonable people, and certainly most children, can look around and go “duh, of course we don’t treat people differently because of their skin color. That’s just stupid.” How sad that it took the weight of the Supreme Court for this to come about, but it certainly solidifies the importance of the judicial branch of our government.

When I was in law school, I wanted to write a paper comparing the struggle identified in Brown with the arguments made regarding the state sanctioned right of marriage and how “domestic partnerships” are separate, unequal, and a violation of the Constitution.

I was lazy, though (and also not smart enough), to ever finish it. Also, I recognize that many people are offended by the comparison of gay rights to the struggle historically endured by people of color. I’m not a person of color and can never presume to understand what it’s like to be a person of color. Instead, I can only tell you what I believe.

And that is this: if race, which is innate (“you’re born that way”), and religion, which is absolutely a personal choice not discernible unless disclosed (“a choice”), are protected by our Constitution, then denying gays the right to marry is unconstitutional.

I haven’t put much thought into all this in a while, but of course these debates are kind of putting it back out there. So, this morning, I re-read Brown. I think the biggest problem I had with trying to make my argument is the contrast between the right that’s identified and ultimately protected in Brown – public education – as compared with the right of marriage.

The question comes down to this – is marriage a fundamental right? 

While Brown squarely and securely addresses this issue with respect to state sanctioned education, there is no United States Supreme Court case that says the same for state sanctioned marriage.

But when I digest what Brown said about education, I’m reminded of that old classic The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss and I can’t help but feel that the gist of the Court’s reasoning (while inapposite in many ways) applies equally to domestic partnerships and the right of gays to marry.

Specifically, the Court said:
…in finding that a segregated law school for Negroes could not provide them equal education opportunities, this Court relied in large part on ‘those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school.’….Such considerations apply with added force to children in grade and high schools. To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone….Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.
Sadly, in 1954 America, the country needed the highest court in the land to tell them what any kid today knows is fair and just.

Today when courts make legal rulings, we often hear an outcry about “activist judges.” That perspective helps us see the importance of the other branches of our government. But I can’t help wondering if that same mindset had been around in 1954 (58 years ago when Brown was decided), or in 1967 (45 years ago when Loving v. Virginia was decided), what measures (akin to Prop 8?) might have been taken by the majority to disenfranchise the minority.

Can you see what I’m getting at?

All these cases took time, decades, even. But, ultimately, the law got it right. 

Someday, it’s going to be the same for same-sex couples.  It will. Because, ultimately, it really is simple. 

Juxtapose the question of whether marriage is a fundamental right against the precepts identified in the Declaration of Independence: the equality of all men, each of whom is endowed with unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And then ask yourself – what could be a more fundamental component in the pursuit of happiness then falling in love and choosing a life partner?

I say it doesn’t get any more fundamental than that.

My partner and I have been together for nearly 17 years. My daughter is seven years old. When my brothers and cousins got married, the family celebrated and the parties were excellent.

I don’t need (or want) the state to validate the love that I am fortunate to have in my life. But I do need the state’s sanction if I want the same rights, benefits, and privileges of marriage that my brothers, my cousins, and every other married couple in the United States enjoys.

Denying me and my family that right, in the face of the Fourteenth Amendment or the Declaration of Independence or Brown v. Board of Ed, or…say, Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, for example – it’s just wrong, guys. And you know it.

I just hope it won’t take 50 years for us to get it right. A bunch of geriatrics getting down at my reception ain’t really what I had in mind…


  1. Awesomely written. I have no other words.

  2. Fine post. Kindness and equality are all we really need as a culture to thrive in the long run.

  3. The change that we really need is to divorce the government--both state and federal--from any authority over defining or licensing marriage. We have a tendency, as has often been noted, to confuse the familiar with the necessary. Everybody alive in the US today grew up with the concept of the government allowing and disallowing marriages, based on changing criteria. But it was not ever thus. States only got into the business of deciding who could marry and who could perform marriages in the mid-1800s. I say we get them back out of the business.

    Everything that is now codified in either state or federal statutes about marriage can instead by done by private contract. If the changes I'd like to see were to happen, overnight businesses would sell packages of legal documents to be filled out that would cover inheritance, sharing of property, etc. Make all income taxes filed as individuals only, no joint filing.

    Once the government stops defining and limiting who can marry whom, people can choose for themselves. (Let's just specify that we're talking about competent adults here, to vacate some of the stupid "parade of horribles" that gets brought up.) Same sex, opposite sex, two, three, ten. Unions temporary or permanent. Live together or don't. Call yourselves married or unionized or any other terms that you like. It's all up to the people involved. If you want to have somebody do a ceremony, great. If not, just do the paperwork at your lawyer's office. You don't even have to file it with any governmental agency. It's a complete live-and-let-live situation. I don't get to define or limit your relationships, and you don't get to define or limit mine.

    And since there is no longer any official definition of marriage in my little utopia, nobody has grounds for complaining that somebody else is ruining the institution.

    It's such an obvious solution that it will never happen.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...