Fifty-seven years ago today, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that the doctrine of separate but equal simply could not stand. While the decision was supposed to eradicate racial segregation in public education facilities, its holding has a far wider reach.
The Brown decision was a forceful rebuke of a national acceptance of segregation of rights, in this case based on skin color that had been handed down from the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. The Plessy decision allowed decades of de facto discrimination to exist despite federal laws outlawing it.
And while the facts and circumstances of Plessy seem even more removed than those of Brown, the reality is the conservative movement has resurrected the rhetoric of “separate but equal” with stunning effectiveness in the gay marriage debate.
As bans on same-sex marriage snake their way through states from California to Iowa to Minnesota, a familiar refrain has surfaced to defend the indefensible: Same-sex marriage bans do not discriminate because gays are free to marry anyone they want, so long as that person is of the opposite sex.
That was the very same logic used to defend Louisiana’s law mandating separate rail cars for black passengers and for white. According to the 7-1 majority in Plessy, whites had no more right to sit in the “coloreds-only” car than “coloreds” had to sit in the whites-only car.
I mean, fair is fair, equal is equal, right?
Except it is not. “Close enough” is not a standard where rights can survive constitutional scrutiny and to suggest so is nothing more than a thinly-veiled cover to deny a person’s humanity.
If it was not clear before it should be now. Defending civil rights means not accepting anything less than a full recognition of rights and privileges for same-sex couples. To do otherwise resurrects the ghosts of a segregationist past that should stay buried for good.
photo courtesy of firemedic58 via Flickr
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