Two U.S. Supreme Court decisions Wednesday reflect this nation’s evolving — but still ambivalent — attitude toward the issue of gay marriage.
The court struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, and chose not to overrule an appellate court decision that had nullified a ban on gay marriage in California. This inaction by the court is thought to reopen gay marriage in California, adding another state to those that allow and conduct marriages between same-sex couples.
The ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act means gay married couples are now eligible for federal benefits, in some cases even if they live in Nebraska or another state with a gay-marriage ban.
It would be quite an understatement to say that the perception of gay marriage in America has evolved since the Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996, especially over the past few years.
Back in 2000, Nebraska passed Initiative 416. It makes same-sex marriage or unions in Nebraska unconstitutional. That initiative reads: “Only marriage between a man and a woman shall be valid or recognized in Nebraska. The uniting of two persons of the same sex in a civil union, domestic partnership or other same-sex relationship shall not be valid or recognized in Nebraska.”
That’s very clear language. Nebraskans need to recognize that this language was approved by voters 13 years ago and that the margin approving this ban on gay marriages or unions was 70 percent-to-30 percent.
So on its face, those in favor of a gay-marriage ban would point to the 70-30 vote as a big win, almost unheard of in political races.
But opponents of 416 might find solace in noting that the 2000 vote was the first officially documented evidence that nearly one-third of Nebraska voters opposed such a ban. And public opinion polls suggest a much larger proportion of Nebraskans would oppose such a ban 13 years later, in 2013.
Notably, this newspaper opposed Initiative 416 when it was proposed. That opposition was on the basis that to single out the gay community poisons an otherwise steadily improving climate for gay and lesbian Nebraskans.
It’s also worth noting that religious denominations can define marriage as they wish for their members. This issue before the court was about marriage in the eyes of the law, which affects issues from property rights to child custody.
While Wednesday’s rulings leave Nebraska’s ban standing, there will most likely come a day when we will address this matter again, in the form of a ballot initiative, court ruling or legislative action.
When we do, and until that time, Nebraskans should promise themselves to treat people on both sides of this issue with respect and dignity.
Members of the gay and lesbian community are big contributors in Nebraska and hold positions of importance at important institutions. They have earned the respect of all Nebraskans.
The same should be said for the honest, well-intentioned, religiously based opponents of gay marriage. They are important contributors to this community who deserve our respect.
Nebraska has a well-earned reputation of being a welcoming, friendly place where good things happen because we work together. Let’s hope that, as this debate continues, we treat one another with dignity and thoughtfulness. That will produce the best result for members of the gay community and the community as a whole.