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Gwen’s Take: (Re)Defining Equality

It wasn’t that long ago that President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. He did it quietly, literally in the dark of night. Less than three years earlier, he’d signed off on another law gay rights advocates hated and later lobbied to overturn — the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military.

Only five years ago, during the 2008 presidential race, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton — both then United States senators — were willing to endorse same-sex marriage. Civil unions, yes. But marriage — no.

This week, all three praised the Supreme Court for invalidating a law that would deny federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was erased in 2011.

History can run fast, and this was a head-snapping week.

On four separate occasions, bipartisan majorities in Congress have easily renewed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which, among other things, forced states with a history of voter suppression to meet strict tests when they redraw districts or shift polling places. Four Republican presidents signed the renewals, most recently George W. Bush in 2006.

The Supreme Court changed that course this week.

Everyone believes in equality, but not everyone agrees on what, exactly, that means.

Sentiment toward another issue the court weighed in on this week, affirmative action, is changing too. The justices approved preferential admissions as a method to achieve diversity in higher education only 10 years ago when it rejected a challenge to a University of Michigan admissions policy.

This week, the court stopped well short of striking down the practice when it had the opportunity. But it signaled a higher bar would be set in the future. It has already accepted another challenge for review next year. Slippery slopes loom.

It’s hard to tell whether the court is following the public on these matters or the other way around. Depending on who gets to do the defining, polls show public opinion has been slipping and sliding on all these issues.

Definition turns out to be key. Everyone believes in equality, but not everyone agrees on what, exactly, that means.

One dictionary defines the word equality as a “state of being equal,” and as “full quality under the law.” This is an expansive idea that can mean all kinds of things, depending on where you sit.

I have no doubt, for instance, that our Founding Fathers were sincere in 1787 when they declared their constitutional intent to form “a more perfect Union.” But it wasn’t until 1865 — 13 amendments later — that anyone thought to abolish slavery. And it wasn’t until 1870 that former slaves were allowed to vote. Women didn’t get that right until half a century later — in 1920 — with the adoption of the 19th Amendment.

In other words, no one who looks like me was anybody’s priority in 1787.

So, assuming that our reading of equality has always been an evolving ideal, this week’s court decisions fit the pattern.

Both affirmative action and voting rights, which were born during a period when presidents and lawmakers of both parties thought a level playing field could be achieved through statute, have faded in the public imagination.

Chief Justice John Roberts said as much in his majority opinion on the Voting Rights Act: “Our country has changed,” he wrote, “and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

That same strain of reasoning runs through affirmative action debates. If Americans are persuaded government has done enough, they are willing to pull back. That hasn’t occurred yet with gay marriage.

But equality as an evolving ideal is a theme in our democracy, with leaps forward and steps back. The immigration debate now underway in Congress provides a fresh example.

No matter which side of the argument you find yourself on, it’s always helpful to be reminded that our sense of who we are has never been a static one, and is unlikely ever to be.

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