Posted by: Doris Hernandez, Political Intern
In a speech delivered on August 16, 1967, the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that had denied equal protection under the law for legally wedded couples on the basis of sexual orientation. Commenting on the court’s ruling, Secretary of State John Kerry echoed Dr. King, saying that “despite setbacks along the way, the arc of our history on this issue has bent towards inclusion and equality, perhaps never more so than today.”
The history of DOMA recalls earlier struggles for equality in the United States, and it demonstrates how citizens even today continue to engage their government to promote and protect equal rights for all. When DOMA was enacted in 1996, it prevented the federal government from extending the protections of over 1,000 federal laws to those same-sex couples who were legally able to marry in their respective states. In response, activists and civic groups used all the tools available to citizens in a democratic society to press the government to ensure equal rights for all citizens. For nearly two decades they organized education and awareness campaigns, reached out to their elected representatives through letter-writing campaigns, initiated voting campaigns to work toward changing state and local laws, conducted publicity events through the media, filed lawsuits in the courts and pursued other strategies to promote equal rights. As a result, they helped to raise awareness about the law’s inequality, shifted public opinion, changed the legal landscape, and prepared the way for the landmark Supreme Court ruling that ruled DOMA to be unconstitutional.
The success of those civic groups also illustrates how civic campaigns to defend human rights can work wherever citizens engage their governments. In Ukraine, the U.S. Embassy helps civic organizations by providing training and support, education, and tools that empower citizens to take action to defend the rights of all Ukrainians. The programs include support to foster civic activism, strengthen independent media, promote a more accountable judicial system, and improve the legislative process. By strengthening democratic institutions, Ukraine’s activists are helping to create the conditions that can bring equal protection under the law and the rights that are due to all citizens.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA was not only a success for advocates and supporters of equal rights in the United States, it was a reassurance that civic activists—both in the United States and throughout the world—really can create meaningful change to protect human rights. The process can take years, and it sometimes requires the concerted efforts of hundreds or thousands of committed citizens working at every level. But as the DOMA ruling showed, while the arc of history is long, when citizens commit to remedying an injustice, they can indeed bend that arc toward justice.