Almost six decades ago, the Supreme Court ruled in no uncertain terms that "the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place" in American law. The ruling solidified the notion that separate is inherently unequal, and that it is also unconstitutional in a country whose 14th Amendment declares unequivocally that "no state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
As discredited as "separate but equal" is, however, the Republican Party is now latching onto it when it comes to the rights of LGBT Americans. Indeed, with polls showing the GOP's staunch anti-gay-marriage position now at odds with American public opinion, Republican voices have resorted to arguing that keeping same-sex marriage illegal somehow doesn't mean that LGBT people are being treated as less equal than everyone else. They are additionally arguing that their opposition to legalizing same sex marriage doesn't mean they are bigots against LGBT people.
With a Supreme Court battle over same-sex marriage kicking off this week, these absurd talking points were most recently aired on national television by the conservative nationally syndicated radio host Ben Ferguson. Watch this heated interchange on CNN from Friday, as Ferguson and I debated the inflammatory statements of Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA):
Ferguson, of course, is not alone in making this argument. The "I'm against gay marriage but not against gay people!" claim is suddenly absolutely everywhere -- and took center stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, thanks to GOP Sen. Marco Rubio.
The idea is that the supposedly tolerant GOP can deny LGBT people the same full rights to marriage as heterosexual people are entitled to, but that doesn't mean Republicans necessarily want to legally discriminate against LGBT Americans. As proof, Republicans insist that because some (but certainly not all) in their party support separate civil union statues or other lesser-than-marriage recognitions of domestic partnerships*, it supposedly means the GOP is for affording LGBT Americans equal protection under the law.
Though the conservatives peddling this line would have you believe otherwise, it doesn't really matter whether or not, in their heart of hearts, they are actual bigots -- just as it doesn't matter if, in their heart of hearts, the opponents of ending Jim Crow laws were die-hard racists. It doesn't matter because public policy isn't about the feelings and emotions of individual legislators -- it is about whether or not the law is inherently prejudiced and, thus, at odds with the Constitution. And quite clearly, laws denying identical legal recognition to same-sex couples as to heterosexual couples violate both the spirit and letter of the 14th Amendment's mandate against denying equal legal protection to any individual or group (in fact, this truism is precisely why in the case being heard this week, the Supreme Court may end up invalidating civil unions and domestic partnerships laws on the grounds that they embody the previously discredited "separate but equal" concept).
Tactically, Republicans are basically asking us to ignore that obvious jurisprudential truth, and instead believe that equal protection under the law matters less than GOP politicians' personal, allegedly non-bigoted feelings. To know how twisted that is, simply rewind the clock to the 1960s and imagine senators voting against civil rights laws telling us with a straight face that they shouldn't be called bigots because they supposedly don't hate African Americans in their heart of hearts.
It's an absurd line of reasoning, of course, but for argument's sake, let's say that you agree with it. Let's say that that when it comes to LGBT rights, you believe the bizarre Republican position and do, in fact, think that what's in Republicans' heart of hearts does matter most. That's where that aforementioned word "allegedly" comes in. For two reasons, nobody should simply stipulate that the GOP position against equal rights for same-sex couples comes from anything other than raw bigotry.
First and foremost, it's just a fact that the GOP continues to promote hideous anti-gay actions and rhetoric. Additionally, the GOP is so bigoted that last year it even rejected adding support for civil unions to its party platform.
Second, and equally revealing, is the gaping hole in the "I'm against gay marriage but not against gay people!" talking point.
Here's the thing: If, like Republican leaders, you don't believe in gay marriage for yourself or for your religion, that's your right. However, your opposition to same-sex marriage in your personal life is no rationale to try to make your personal subjective belief on that issue the law of the land for everyone to the point of running roughshod over the constitution's "equal protection" clause.
By claiming otherwise - by claiming that one's personal opposition to gay marriage for oneself is cause for such opposition to be codified into law - the American Right is exposing its devotion to legislating institutionalized bigotry. It is effectively saying that anti-gay-rights conservatives are so intensely bigoted in their personal views about LGBT people that they feel compelled to ignore the constitution and prevent others - even the majority of Americans who support legalizing gay marriage - from having the freedom to live out their own personal beliefs.
This is why this whole issue is an issue of liberty. Nobody is trying to force anyone to have a same-sex marriage - the only thing at issue is whether others have the freedom to such a marriage, if they choose to have one (and if you actually believe that someone else's marriage undermines your own marriage, then you need to seek marriage counseling ASAP).
GOP bigotry is leading that party to try to deny that freedom and those constitutional rights - and none of the Republicans' discredited "separate but equal" platitudes or empty assertions about being personally against bigotry can hide that ugly fact anymore.
* NOTE: This is not to argue that civil unions or other such legal recognitions of same-sex domestic partnerships are bad steps. In lieu of legislation extending equal marriage rights to same sex couples, these are solid steps toward equality. The point is, though, that they do not represent full marriage equality.