The issue of marriage equality is one that politicians everywhere are eager to avoid. In South Carolina, where gay marriage is banned by the State Constitution, the issue is even more politically problematic, especially for Democrats.
As the Democrat running for Lindsey Graham’s U.S. Senate seat, I’ve received no shortage of advice on how to deal with “the gay marriage problem.” In a recent discussion, I received another installment of the usual advice: avoid the topic at all costs until addressing it becomes unavoidable. Only then, when asked, should I adopt a position opposing gay marriage and supporting the state ban. After making it clear that this wasn’t going to work for me, I was told that I had only one other option: claim that marriage equality falls under the purview of the states, not the federal government and wash my hands of it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work for me either. I just don’t believe it to be the case.
I’ll admit that at first I was hopeful I would discover the perfect argument that would both allow me to avoid this issue until after the election and spare my conscience. I’m a human being and a politician and I want to get elected like everyone else. The problem for me is that I fundamentally believe marriage equality is not a minor issue to be minimized, ignored or treated as a political inconvenience. It is a civil rights issue affecting millions of people who are our neighbors, friends and family. They are Americans who are entitled to the same privileges and benefits afforded to me and my wife Marnie.
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires equal protection under the law and, while courts may be undecided as to which level of scrutiny applies in protecting the LGBT community from discrimination, rights given to one group by law should not be denied another. In my view then, it’s simple: gay couples must not be denied the right to marry.
In the context of this issue, it is important to address another fundamental right guaranteed by our U.S. Constitution to which I am also firmly committed: our First Amendment right to religious freedom. The government must never be permitted to interfere with the right of churches and other religious organizations to define marriage according to their own beliefs.
Beyond our constitutionally guaranteed rights, I believe that we have a moral obligation to treat every human being with respect – even if he or she is different. Imagine for a moment what it’s like to be gay and in high school in South Carolina. Maybe you don’t need to imagine. But try to put yourself in the place of an adolescent looking for acceptance but facing disapproval and bigotry from classmates, teachers, even family members. Now imagine that same student in civics class, studying the South Carolina Constitution and learning that even his own state’s laws sanction discrimination against him. With nowhere to turn, facing bullying and pressure to hide who they really are, is it any wonder that gay youth attempt suicide at four times the rate of their heterosexual classmates?
I won’t be silent or hide behind political rhetoric on the issue of marriage equality and civil rights. Stand with me if you won’t either.