LGBT Rights Are Universal Rights, Not Open To A “Healthy” Debate

It’s a common sight across the country: A family packs up its belongings and moves to a new state it will call home.

Sometimes it’s a job opportunity that calls. Other times it’s family. These moves are life-changing events for any family, but for LGBT people, the simple act of crossing a state line has even more significance.

It can mean your marriage no longer exists in the eyes of that state.

It can mean the law won’t protect you from discrimination.

It can mean you have fewer parental rights.

This is the reality the LGBT community faces every day thanks to the patchwork of state laws regarding LGBT rights in this country. It’s a reality that exists even after President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage – a position he said “evolved” from his earlier support of civil unions.

While Obama’s recent announcement is certainly a historic milestone for LGBT rights, he made some troubling remarks that show he must continue to “evolve” on this issue. Otherwise, the LGBT community will continue to see its fundamental rights ebb and flow from state to state.

Sadly, the president says he believes each state should decide the issue of same-sex marriage, saying this approach is a “healthy process” that spurs “healthy debate.” Even more troubling, he framed his support for same-sex marriage as a personal position rather than a civil rights issue.

His position denies the fact that LGBT rights are civil rights. They should not be subject for debate – even a “healthy debate.” And they should not be subject to the whim of the majority by placing them on the ballot.

It’s ludicrous to believe the gains of the civil rights movement would have been achieved by putting the civil rights of black people on the ballot across the Deep South. And today, at the Southern Poverty Law Center, we see how this wrongheaded approach is denying the LGBT community its rights.

Our client Chelsea Hughes watched her parental rights evaporate after the father of her children moved to Alabama. He used the state’s ban on same-sex marriage to deny her right to overnight visitation with her children, solely because she lives with her partner Jaymi. Even though Chelsea and Jaymi are registered domestic partners in Washington state, under Alabama law, Jaymi is considered a “paramour," as if their committed relationship were no more than a casual fling. The result is that Chelsea has been unable to tuck her four young children into bed for over a year now, while the SPLC continues to fight for her parenting rights.

Chelsea, and countless others like her across the South and elsewhere, cannot wait for their home states to "evolve." That six states and the District of Columbia have affirmed the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry provides little consolation. For every state that has made advances for the LGBT community, there’s a state where lawmakers exploit the backlash to these gains to pass laws restricting LGBT rights. Just last month, we saw North Carolina inscribe discrimination into their constitution by banning same-sex marriages and civil unions.

Here in Alabama, there is little likelihood that state legislators or the courts will advance laws protecting the LGBT community, much less pass legislation supporting same-sex marriage. This is where Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore in 2002 wrote an opinion in a child custody case that said homosexuality was “abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature's God.” He also wrote that gay parents were “presumptively unfit to have custody of minor children under the established laws of this state.”

In Alabama classrooms, teachers leading sex education classes where the instruction extends beyond abstinence education are required by law to teach “in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”

It’s clear. The tide is not going to turn anytime soon in Alabama or its neighbor states. This means LGBT families will continue to suffer undue hardship because they are not seen as equal in the eyes of the state. Yet, in the same nation, a completely different experience may be found in another state that recognizes LGBT rights.

This patchwork approach is not sustainable. Allowing each individual state to maybe someday come around to recognizing fundamental rights just won’t work, and will only harm our country. These are universal rights. We cannot be a nation that espouses equality for all when so many in the LGBT community, like Chelsea and Jaymi, are forced to check their rights at the door.