Marriage equality in U.S. marks historic progress

marriage equality rally outside the U.S. Supreme CourtHundreds of protesters (photo right) attend a marriage equality rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on March 26, 2013, as the court began hearings in two cases that supported marriage equality in the U.S. The court that year found the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. At press time, same-sex couples in 35 states and the District of Columbia had equal marriage rights.

Marriage equality in the U.S. made a giant leap forward in October when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to weigh in on challenges to five lower federal court rulings that had rejected state bans on same-sex marriage.

By leaving the lower-court decisions intact, the Supreme Court effectively approved the outcome and permitted same-sex marriage in the five states.

At press time, the federal appeals courts’ decision against same-sex marriage bans had resulted in marriage equality for same-sex couples in 35 states and the District of Columbia. Additional legal challenges to similar state bans were pending at press time, with one in the federal 6th Circuit having been decided against same-sex marriage in Louisiana, setting the stage for a Supreme Court review.

For Kristina Smith, chairwoman of the NASW LGBT Issues Committee, the progress of marriage equality in the U.S. has been a personal one.

“I lived in Indiana but had to go out of state (Iowa) to marry my wife in 2012,” she said. “While our marriage was not recognized in Indiana at the time, because I work for the federal government, we were recognized once DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) was repealed. This had a tremendous impact on my family, as I was able to add my wife to my health insurance.”

Smith noted that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision, which found the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 unconstitutional, was a major turning point in the legal recognition for marriage equality.

Yet, discrimination remains a matter of geography for many same-sex couples.

Smith and her family recently moved to Texas, where same-sex marriage remained banned at press time.

“Ironically, after we moved, Indiana started recognizing same-sex marriages,” Smith said. “So it feels like one step forward and two steps back. The birth of our baby boy two weeks ago adds another complication with parental recognition.”

It remains crucial for social workers to stay current on all of the changes and to understand the impact these decisions have on the benefits and privileges that come from the marriage laws, Smith noted.

“Understanding the history of the LGB communities, the impact of discrimination, stigma, and laws and policies on individuals, families and communities, are critical components to ensuring culturally competent social work practice,” she said.

Smith said NASW has been a major player in the fight for marriage equality from the beginning.

“While we are seeing unprecedented progress, there remain real issues and barriers for people who just want to marry the person they love,” she said. “Marriage is a personal commitment between two people who love and respect each other. This commitment crosses all races and socioeconomic lines, yet a large faction of married couples do not have access to fundamental rights and protections under the law.”

Looking back

Former NASW President Jeane Anastas, who served on the NASW LGBT Issues Committee, put into perspective how important the progress to marriage equality has been in the U.S.

“As someone who came out in the 1970s, I remember the excitement when being gay or lesbian was no longer by definition a mental disorder,” she said. “But it was still widely believed that ‘gay relationships’ were doomed to failure and marriage equality was unimaginable.”

Anastas said she was able to marry in 2004 when Massachusetts approved same-sex marriage.

“The recent Supreme Court decision on DOMA unleashed many subsequent changes in laws and regulations supporting marriage equality,” she noted.

However, more work lies ahead.

“Most do not know that there is still no federal guarantee of civil rights to LGBTQ people, although quite a few states and cities have provided this protection,” Anastas said.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity by employers, has a large majority of the public’s support but has yet to become law, she said.

“Globally, in almost 80 nations being LGBTQ is a crime,” Anastas added. “And in some places it can even lead to the death penalty. So our advocacy must continue.”

Biking for equality

Rick Harris, executive director of the NASW Rhode Island Chapter, has ridden about 12,500 miles by bicycle and collected more than 10,000 signatures in support of marriage equality since 2002, taking his personal time to do so.

His summer bike trips, usually along the Eastern Seaboard, have raised awareness through media coverage as well.

“Given the enormous strides in making the very basic human and civil right for same-sex couples to marry, I am so proud to be part of a profession which has so diligently worked toward this effort,” Harris said.

Social change occurs very much like the old chemistry experiment, titration, he said, where a person starts with a base or an acid then adds an indicator drop by drop.

“Suddenly out of nowhere the clear fluid changes either to pink or blue instantaneously,” Harris said. “I believe the social change process often occurs in the very same way with millions of pinpricks of advocacy from many sources in many locations. Suddenly great change occurs, which is what I see happening with marriage equality.”


NASW’s Legal Defense Fund continues to file amicus briefs in cases where bans on same-sex marriage are being challenged. The following are the latest filings.

NASW and the Arkansas Chapter, through the LDF, supported an amicus brief in the Arkansas Supreme Court in October in the case Wright v Smith. It is on appeal from the Circuit Court of Pulaski County, Ark., 3rd Division.

The brief argues that extensive social science research demonstrates that same-sex parented families provide stable and loving environments for children throughout the country. It notes that 6 million Americans have at least one parent who identifies as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Amici urge affirmation of the circuit court’s order, holding the Arkansas constitutional and legislative bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

Also in October, NASW and its Louisiana Chapter, through the LDF, joined in filing an amicus brief with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Robicheaux v. Caldwell. This case is noted above as the one federal case that has not upheld same-sex marriage and is likely to be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Finally, NASW and the Texas Chapter, through the LDF, joined in filing an amicus brief with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in DeLeon v. Perry in September. The court upheld recognition of out-of-state gay marriage but stayed the decision pending an appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The brief argued that Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage and the failure to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages are instances of institutional stigma. It urged the court to uphold the lower court’s ruling in declaring the state’s ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional.

For these and other LDF briefs: Amicus Brief Database

Additional resources: