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Think Tank

A Big Day for Gay Rights?

Church and State both took tentative strides towards granting gays and lesbians greater rights yesterday. In Massachusetts a federal judge overturned the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted last night to ordain non-celibate gay and lesbian clergymen but tabled discussion on a more progressive measure to embrace same-sex marriage. Big Think talked with several experts today to gauge exactly how important these developments are for the gay rights movement. 

In two separate cases, Judge Joseph L. Tauro of United States District Court of Boston ruled that same-sex couples deserve the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples. If upheld, this decision would guarantee federal benefits in the five states that allow same-sex marriage and the District of Columbia. But the decision will certainly be appealed by the Department of Justice, most likely reaching the Supreme Court. Though the Obama administration has made clear its opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Department of Justice is obliged to defend the constitutionality of existing laws. Legal experts are divided as to whether the ruling will hold up to the appeal, says The New York Times.

NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino explained to Big Think today that the two cases involved in this ruling challenge DOMA from two very different angels. One case used the 10th Amendment to call into question the federal government's powers vis-a-vis states' rights; the other argues that the law violates equal protection under the law embodied in the 5th Amendment. Yoshino calls this two-pronged challenge "an ingenious pincers movement." The two arguments are "mutually reinforcing in an interesting way," he said. "Many judges who would be against same-sex marriage would still be for the states' right to define it." Ultimately, though, he believes "the 5th Amendment route is more likely to succeed than the 10th Amendment route because the precedents here are more robust." And if the case does make it to the Supreme Court, the outcome, he said, "will come down, as usual, to Justice Kennedy." 

The vote by Presbyterian leaders yesterday is also only a provisional one. While important symbolically, it will not become official doctrine until a majority of the church's 173 "presbyteries," or district governing bodies, approve the measure.

Ann Craig, Director of Religion, Faith & Values for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, spoke with Big Think today from Minnesota where yesterday's meeting was held. "The Presbyterian Church meets every two years, and in the past two meetings they have consistently made steps towards full equality," she said. In 2008, Presbyterian leaders voted in favor of ordaining gays and lesbians, but the measure failed to garner support in the presbyteries. But this time around, says Craig, people are very hopeful: "The last time they received historic levels of support from unexpected places like the Carolinas and rural areas in the Midwest and Southeast." 

If the measure is accepted, the Presbyterian Church will join a growing number of Protestant denominations that allow same-sex clergy, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the U.S. Episcopal Church. And two major U.S. denominations—the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations—explicitly allow same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church, however, shows no signs of loosening its stance towards gay ordination or same-sex marriage. Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and BT expert, said the likelihood of a similar action in the Catholic Church is "slim to none." The Vatican, he said, "has been very clear about not accepting gay men into seminaries and religious orders." 

But Father Martin added, "the Presbyterian Church's decision is a positive reflection of society's greater acceptance of gays and lesbians in our country."
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