In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson articulated a bedrock principle of our constitutional democracy. In America, he said:
"All … will bear in mind this sacred principle: that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect and to violate would be oppression."
Flawed though the prevailing concept of equality was at the time, Jefferson was saying that in the United States, no group of citizens should ever have their civil rights subject to the whims of the majority. In Jefferson’s time, as today, this ideal has been only imperfectly realized.
Throughout our country’s history though, people of courage and good will have fought to change that. My own life is an example. My parents were active in the civil rights movement, and it was a white couple working for housing equality that helped my family secure a home in the town of Harrington Park, New Jersey after initially being told by the real estate agent that the house had already been sold.
Speaking decades ago, Jackie Robinson said, "The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time." In 2013, it remains so. We must demand an end to the second-class citizenship of LGBT Americans. We must enact full marriage equality.
Married couples have more than 1,100 rights and protections under federal law. Our country’s first-class citizens receive Social Security benefits upon the death or retirement of their spouse. If they are injured on the job, their spouses can take advantage of workers’ compensation protections, can visit their loved one in the hospital, and are given a voice in life and death matters. When first-class citizens fill out their tax returns, they can claim exemptions from penalties on IRA rollovers, from taxes on their spouses’ health insurance, and from taxes on their spouses’ estates.
Gay and lesbian Americans have not enjoyed these rights and so many others – from immigration protections to benefits impacting military couples. Their separate and unequal treatment under the law has been a blatant and shameful violation of our core constitutional principles. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution is unambiguous when it insists that all Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law. We must be similarly clear and steadfast in our insistence that gay and lesbian people must no longer be second-class citizens in their own country.
While I believe in finding common ground in the name of progress, and that reasonable, well-meaning people can disagree, there are some instances when compromise is unacceptable. The issue of equal rights for LGBTQ Americans is one of these red line questions for me.
Today’s DOMA decision is another step towards realizing the promise of Thomas Jefferson’s words, the promise of our democracy. The Court has recognized that the federal government has no basis for discriminating against same-sex couples who are legally married under their states’ laws.
The onus is now on the states to move forward. That goes for New Jersey too.
Now that the Supreme Court has struck down DOMA, New Jersey’s Civil Union law is no longer a disgrace simply on the grounds of bigotry alone. It is plainly substantive discrimination that deprives New Jersey’s gay couples of more than 1,100 federal rights, privileges and benefits afforded to married couples.
In the coming weeks, we will see a rush to New Jersey courts to overturn this law, and I urge our legislature, which already passed gay marriage, to act immediately to put it before the governor once again. I’m hopeful that other states around the country will follow their lead.
We can live in a country where no American is a second-class citizen … but only if we fight every day to create it.