Same-sex marriage ruling is a victory for all minority groups

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Friday, July 16, 2010

THE D.C. COURT of Appeals on Thursday provided an important and welcome victory for same-sex marriage. But its decision in Jackson v. D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics is likely to have significance far beyond the realm of gay rights.

In a 5 to 4 ruling, the court held that the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics was right to block a voter initiative sponsored by Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr. and other opponents of same-sex marriage that would have allowed District residents to vote on the definition of marriage. The initiative was intended to nullify the D.C. Council's decision to sanction same-sex marriages by requiring that only unions between one man and one woman would be legally recognized.

The appeals court essentially ruled that the Rev. Jackson has a right to his opinion but that he and others do not have a right to force on the District an initiative that would have codified discrimination. "The initiative . . . would take away from those individuals a civil right that the Council has seen fit to recognize and expressly allow," the five-judge majority concluded.

This simple and just conclusion is estimable, but it is the manner in which the court ruled that is worthy of note. The court held that no initiative could be placed before voters if it contravenes the District's Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion and sexual orientation, among other things. This holding is likely to resonate for some time to come and protect all manner of minority groups from having their civil rights stripped at the ballot box.

Opponents of same-sex marriage have not given up and are contemplating an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices rarely take up legal matters that affect only the District; indeed, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. declined this year to block implementation of the District's same-sex marriage law, noting that it "has been the practice of the Court to defer to the decisions of the courts of the District of Columbia on matters of exclusively local concern." This contrasts with the D.C. gun case, which involved a question about the Second Amendment on which federal appeals courts across the country had disagreed. There is no constitutional issue of national import or circuit split in the Jackson case. The court should decline to hear the matter and respect the District's right to home rule.


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