“In America, even sincere and long-held religious beliefs do not trump the constitutional rights of those who happen to have been outvoted.”
So explained U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II on Tuesday as he delivered his decision striking down Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriage. Heyburn is the latest federal judge to overturn anti-marriage-equality legislation in the year following the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, which invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act’s (DOMA’s) federal restriction of marriage to only heterosexual couples.
The year following the Windsor decision has seen a domino effect on marriage-equality rulings in the United States. Today, 19 states offer unchallenged legal recognition of same-sex marriages: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, along with the District of Columbia.
Beyond this, judges have struck down marriage bans in an additional 12 states—Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin—but these decisions are being appealed, meaning same-sex couples cannot currently get married in those states.
All of the remaining 19 states—Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming—are currently processing cases that challenge same-sex marriage bans.
The speed of this recent success has left many hopeful that we are at last witnessing the triumph of LGBTQ rights across the nation. For the first time in history, we have a world with an openly gay NFL player, gay Boy Scouts, a proud lesbian reclaiming her job as police chief after being fired for her sexuality, and a trans woman of color on the cover of Time. Stories of Republican senators abandoning homophobia, the disastrously low turnout for the National Organization for Marriage’s anti-marriage equality march and a Maryland state senate election featuring a match-up between a gay man and a trans woman sound almost too good to be true. With President Obama announcing an impending executive order prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination by federal contractors and an additional executive order specifically protecting transgender employees, there’s good reason to be excited.
The fight, however, is far from over. Violence against members of the LGBTQ community remains a regular reminder of the hate still present in our communities. Last month, Yaz’min Shancez, a trans woman of color, was murdered, set on fire and thrown away like trash. She was not the only recent trans murder victim. Important progress has been made, but complacency could prove fatal for LGBTQ equality. The power of an executive order can only go so far, and with a presidential election on the horizon, supporters of LGBTQ rights have reason enough to feel anxious about a more conservative future administration. To make matters worse, some worry that the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Hobby Lobby this week may be the first step towards allowing religious beliefs to be a guise for legally protected discrimination against LGBTQ people as well.
Yet this is absolutely a time for celebration. After decades of activism, members of the LGBTQ community are finally starting to see the long-awaited recognition and protection of their rights nationwide.