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JOHN LEWIS

At a crossroads on gay unions

FROM TIME to time, America comes to a crossroads. With confusion and controversy, it's hard to spot that moment. We need cool heads, warm hearts, and America's core principles to cleanse away the distractions.

We are now at such a crossroads over same-sex couples' freedom to marry. It is time to say forthrightly that the government's exclusion of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters from civil marriage officially degrades them and their families. It denies them the basic human right to marry the person they love. It denies them numerous legal protections for their families.

This discrimination is wrong. We cannot keep turning our backs on gay and lesbian Americans. I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I've heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry.

Some say let's choose another route and give gay folks some legal rights but call it something other than marriage. We have been down that road before in this country. Separate is not equal. The rights to liberty and happiness belong to each of us and on the same terms, without regard to either skin color or sexual orientation.

Some say they are uncomfortable with the thought of gays and lesbians marrying. But our rights as Americans do not depend on the approval of others. Our rights depend on us being Americans.

Sometimes it takes courts to remind us of these basic principles. In 1948, when I was 8 years old, 30 states had bans on interracial marriage, courts had upheld the bans many times, and 90 percent of the public disapproved of those marriages, saying they were against the definition of marriage, against God's law. But that year, the California Supreme Court became the first court in America to strike down such a ban. Thank goodness some court finally had the courage to say that equal means equal, and others rightly followed, including the US Supreme Court 19 years later.

Some stand on the ground of religion, either demonizing gay people or suggesting that civil marriage is beyond the Constitution. But religious rites and civil rights are two separate entities. What's at stake here is legal marriage, not the freedom of every religion to decide on its own religious views and ceremonies.

I remember the words of John Kennedy when his presidential candidacy was challenged because of his faith: "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish -- where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source -- where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials -- and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

Those words ring particularly true today. We hurt our fellow citizens and our community when we deny gay people civil marriage and its protections and responsibilities. Rather than divide and discriminate, let us come together and create one nation. We are all one people. We all live in the American house. We are all the American family. Let us recognize that the gay people living in our house share the same hopes, troubles, and dreams. It's time we treated them as equals, as family.

John Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia, was one of the original speakers at the 1963 March on Washington and is author of "Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement."

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