By Nick BeJeaux
The struggle of same-sex couples to have their relationships legally recognized is over in the United States. Here in
Baton Rouge, celebration abounded on the steps of the Capitol the day the Supreme Court handed down its decision. But community organizers, activists, and advocates say that there is still much work to be done before the Louisiana LGBT community truly stands on equal footing.
The SCOTUS Decision
On the anniversary of the death of the Defense of Marriage Act and of the Lawrence v. Texas ruling, The Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 in favor of Jim Obergefell in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26. Obergefell, the plaintiff in the case, originally filed the suit in 2013 with his partner John Arthur, now deceased, after he had fallen gravely ill and was unable to name Obergefell on his Ohio death certificate, despite the fact they were legally married in another state. The couple argued that the refusal of the state to recognize their marriage violated the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Court agreed.
The ruling brought recognition to Obergefell and Arthur’s relationship, but has also cleared the way for marriage equality in all 50 states. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a known libertarian on issues of personal liberty, race and social issues, was the swing vote in the ruling and authored the majority’s opinion. He wrote:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
The Community Celebration
Baton Rouge celebrated the ruling with a rally on the Capitol steps hosted by Capital City Alliance and filled with speeches, skittles, and a sea of rainbows. Kayla Mulford, CCA President, was the first to speak.
“I remember a friend of mine asking, ‘Do you really think you’ll be able to marry her?’ And I looked at her dead in the eyes and said that I firmly believe that marriage equality will happen in my lifetime,” she said. “But never did I imagine that it would happen before I turned 30.”
LSU Professor and Baton Rouge Pride Chairman Tom Merrill said that his relationship with longtime partner Rick Cain doesn’t need a piece of paper to be valid. Still, it’s nice to have.
“Being married is not going to make a huge difference in our relationship,” he said. “After 22 and a half years, we’ve pretty much figured out that we have it down. We don’t need anyone else to recognize it for it to be real, but on the other hand, pardon my language, it feels damn good.”
Metro Councilman John Delgado, an avid supporter of Baton Rouge’s LGBT community, said that the rally goers and people like them are standing on the right side of history.
“History was made today, and we were standing on the right side. Today will forever be known as the day love won,” he said. “Today we have seen that bigotry has been denounced and, most importantly that one man, Jim Obergefell, when his cause is right can change the world.”
The Fight Ahead
Despite the ruling by the Supreme Court, clerks of court in five states—Louisiana Alabama, Mississippi, Utah and Tennessee—resisted, for the most part, the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said in a press conference on the day of the ruling that because there was no specific mandate by the court to issue licenses, his office will not enforce the ruling.
“Therefore, there is not yet a legal requirement for officials to issue marriage licenses or perform marriages for same-sex couples in Louisiana. The Attorney General’s Office will be watching for the Court to issue a mandate or order making today’s decision final and effective and will issue a statement when that occurs,” he said.
However, as of Monday, June 29, Louisiana has started issuing licenses to same-sex couples with the first being in Jefferson Parish. Alabama, Tennessee, and Utah have also begun issuing the licenses, leaving Mississippi as the last hold out.
But marriage equality is not the end of the road for LGBT rights in Louisiana, and indeed the United States. In Louisiana, sodomy laws—ruled unconstitutional in 2003 by the SCOTUS—have been used and can be used to jail same-sex couples, despite the fact many law enforcement officials have voiced opposition to them. Laws that protect individuals from workplace, housing, and healthcare discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity exist only in Shreveport and New Orleans, making it legal to fire LGBT people for being LGBT everywhere in Louisiana except for those two cities.
“Just last night someone asked me, ‘So marriage equality has happened, so does CCA cease to exist?’ I ever so lovingly looked at them and replied, ‘Do you honestly think that marriage is the only thing LGBT people want?’” said Mulford. “We will not stop at marriage. We will continue to fight for employment protections, anti-bullying legislation, homeless youth initiatives and so on and so on until we have equal rights. CCA will continue to fight for the LGBT Community, so while we celebrate today, we must continue to stand up.”