A More Perfect Union

The Supreme Court reminds us marriage is a civil institution.

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(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters take part in a demonstration to condemn the ban of same-sex marriages. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

No, the federal government doesn't get to enshrine hoary discrimination into the law – this is America after all. And the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, was deeply un-American.

More than 200 years of history has taught us over and over that we live in an imperfect union. But "perfect" wasn't what the Founding Fathers ordained and established; they gave us a "more perfect union." They improved on what they had. That was a promise, which they fulfilled, and a challenge for every generation of Americans: It is incumbent upon all of us to leave our union a bit more perfect than we found it.

The Supreme Court did just that today, its reactionary wing be damned. DOMA was an affront to the idea of equal protection under the law. The federal government doesn't get to set aside a subset of lawfully married couples and deprive them of their rights.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

This is a reminder that marriage is not solely a religious sacrament. (It wasn't even originally a strictly religious rite, as Garry Wills has noted: "The early church had no specific rite for marriage. This was left up to the secular authorities of the Roman Empire, since marriage is a legal concern for the legitimacy of heirs.") Marriage is also a civic institution. Married couples have more than 1,100 federal rights, protections and responsibilities, things like Family and Medical Leave Act rights and Social Security benefits. If churches want to discriminate (and, despite what you might think, not all religious institutions oppose gay marriage) and preserve "traditional" marriage, that's their business. May they pay the price in the pews in this world and justify themselves to their gods in the next.

Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law, repented a few months ago, declaring the law to be contrary to the fundamental principles of the nation and "incompatible with our Constitution." At the time, there were only 81 members of Congress willing to stand with those American principles and vote against this odious act. Now, thanks to the Supreme Court, the federal government has joined 13 states in fully honoring marriage equality. "We are a people who declared that we are all created equal – and the love we commit to one another must be equal as well," President Obama said today.

[Weigh in: Was the Supreme Court's decision correct?]

There's still work left to do. Much of the country still denies this fundamental right. We may well need another Supreme Court decision acknowledging that states should honor marriages performed in other states. But today was a day in which America took a step forward and lived a little more up to our ideals. The Defense of Marriage Act was a vicious and discriminatory piece of waste and our union is a little more perfect without it.

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