Earlier this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban and Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, joined me for a live chat. He is author of “Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People’s Right to Marry.” An edited excerpt of the discussion is below. For the full transcript please click here.
Steven Petrow: Tell us about yesterday’s decision, and put it into context too?
Evan Wolfson: Yesterday we saw yet another ruling in favor of the freedom to marry — the third such federal appellate ruling and the 29th from a federal or state court in the last year. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a case coming out of Virginia that the denial of the freedom to marry violates the U.S. Constitution and must end.
SP: So, what does that mean to same-sex couples in Virginia and in the other Fourth District states?
EW: For now, the decision is not yet final. There is more process in the courts, but either it will be appealed or it will become law… and it’s one step closer to the freedom to marry for all — couples in the 4th Circuit as well as nationwide.
SP: In every way imaginable it seems as though marriage equality advocates keeping winning in the courts. What keeps you up at night? What are the possible roadblocks ahead?
EW: We clearly have the momentum, we know what we are doing, we have the right arguments and a great team … but the biggest danger is that we stop doing what we are doing and expect it all to just waft in on a wave of inevitability. The reason we are winning is that we are creating the climate that enables decision-makers, including judges and justices, to do the right thing. We have to keep doing the work until we get the job done.
The Freedom to Marry strategy has always been to set the stage for a Supreme Court ruling that will bring the country to national resolution. We don’t have to win within the 4 corners of each state, but we have to win enough states and enough support so as to ensure the win in the Supreme Court. Now our task is to convey that America is ready — and that the Court must act, because every day of denial is a day of real injustice, indignity, and hardship to families in the 31 states still discriminating.
SP: As you well know, the Fourth District includes the Southern states of Va,, N.C., S.C. and W. Va. — some of the most conservative in the nation. Are you surprised that this district court ruled what seems so quickly?
EW: No. It may feel likely “quickly” to some, but we’ve been laying the groundwork for this moment for decades, and, intensely, several years… and what we’re seeing now is the fruition of millions of conversations, tens of battles, and much persuasion and investment. We need to keep at it. We are winning — but winning is not the same as won.
Now to our reader questions.
Q: What state will be next to legalize same-sex marriage?
I know with things moving so quickly these days, it might be hard to predict, but which state do you think will be next to legalize marriage equality and which state do you think will have the toughest time holding off a ban?
A: We don’t know which will be next… With more than 70 marriage cases across the country, the landscape is very dynamic. We have now won rulings in the 10th Circuit and the 4th, and will soon see arguments and likely rulings in the 6th, 7th, and 9th, with others to come. What we need to do is keep building support to show the judges and justices they can and must bring an end to marriage discrimination nationwide now.
When will the Supreme Court take up this issue again?
Q: I’ve seen a lot of court decisions this year over gays’ right to marry and one state’s recognition of another state’s marriage of such. They’ve all gone the same way. When do you think the Supreme Court is going to take up this issue and make a final decision on the subject? It feels like they dropped the ball by not doing so completely when they struck down parts of DOMA.
A: Our strategy has always been not just to get to the Supreme Court, but to win there. And the key to that has always been getting to the Court having built a critical mass of states and support. We didn’t quite have that in 2013, but do have it now, which is why our core work now is to convey that America is ready and there is urgency for the Court to rule. Freedom to Marry is drumming out that message with our partners, with powerful stories, with work on the ground in the South and all corners of the country, and with a real focus on underscoring that we now have majority support in the South and Mountain West as well as the Industrial Heartland, among young Republicans, and even young Evangelicals, as well as business.
What’s going to happen in North Carolina [which is in the Fourth District]?
Q: Yesterday after the court ruling North Carolina’s Attorney General Roy Cooper responded by saying that the state’s ban on the freedom to marry “will almost surely be overturned.” Is that premature? What are the possible scenarios?
A: The Attorney General is right that the discrimination in NC and other states will almost surely be overturned. The question is when. Until it is, of course, we have to keep at it — persuading, telling stories, showing support, etc. And having political leadership from state attorneys general, as well as governors and others, adds to the case and climate we are making to enable and encourage the courts to keep doing the right thing and finish the job. That said, it’s not done until it’s done.
Help for Florida!
Q: I live in Jacksonville, Fla. I was born in 1965 and today I have no more rights now as a gay person than the day I was born. No marriage, employment, housing protections or right to accommodation. Please send help! In the meantime, every other state has had big encouraging statewide decisions while the two in Florida only affected the counties involved. Once again leaving Jacksonville with virtually NO progress. What’s going on here?
A: You are right that until we’ve ended discrimination in every corner of the country, the work is not finished. That’s why we launched Southerners for the Freedom to Marry. That’s why we have organizers on the ground in Florida and other Southern states, working closely with local organizations such as Equality Florida. And that’s why we have to do the work locally — with people like you speaking up neighbor-to-neighbor, to make the case in Florida, even as we work to bring national progress that can bring gains to parts of the country we haven’t yet reached. It’s the synergy between national and local that best advances our cause.
Do West Virginia and South Carolina have legal standing to appeal this ruling?
Q: Supposing Virginia decides not to appeal, and NC Attorney General has said he will stop defending Amendment 1 there. Do either West Virginia or South Carolina have legal standing to appeal?
A: Not exactly. There are cases pending now in every state, including in WV and SC. The 4th Circuit ruling will either be appealed or will become the controlling precedent that governs those states. What’s needed is more work in WV and SC (like everywhere) to showcase real families in each state harmed every day by the denial of the freedom to marry and the absence of legal protection and respect.