In Nicholas Romero’s opinion piece on gay marriage, he claims that because California state law explicitly prohibits gay marriage, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s issuance of marriage licenses to gay couples was legally abhorrent and contrary to his role as an elected public official. Mr. Romero’s argument has validity, for do our public officials not take an oath to uphold the law? But then again, how can one uphold or even tolerate a law that is discriminatory in nature?
The civil rights battles of the’50s and the ’60s are but a history lesson for this generation, but that history lesson can teach us much about how these unjust laws were eventually ripped from the books. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other civil rights heroes were lawbreakers. They resorted to openly defying the segregationist laws of the south to bring the injustice of these laws into the public limelight as well as force them into the judicial system to examine their validity.
Mayor Newsom’s actions, though contrary to the law, mirror the actions of these civil rights pioneers. And it is my opinion that the purpose of our judicial system is not only to pass judgment on lawbreakers but also to reevaluate unjust laws, even if such an action is contrary to public opinion. Some of the essential victories of the civil rights movement occurred in the courts, in cases like Brown v. Board of Education, where the validity of unjust laws were challenged though the breaking of those very laws. Newsom and the gay couples getting married may be breaking the laws, but they’re forcing the courts to do their jobs and reevaluate such laws.
The civil rights movement was not popular in the United States before the ’60s, and likewise the majority of Americans today do not support the idea of equal rights for gays. While the former segregationists and segregation sympathizers try hand over fist today to distance themselves from their pasts and ally themselves with the ideals of civil rights, this transformation did not occur without public debate. For most of the New Deal era and the ’50s, the atmosphere of the United States was hostile to the mention of the race question. Fed up with trying to get their message out through traditional means, civil rights activists resorted to nonviolent and sometimes law-breaking tactics to incite this debate.
Many social conservatives from all ends of the nation have stood up to condemn Newsom for his actions. They accuse him of being a law-breaking liberal and enforcing his radical left-wing ideals on an unwilling populace. Many of these very same conservatives were praising the actions of Chief Justice Roy Moore of Alabama who gained notoriety for putting up the Ten Commandments in the Alabama courthouse and steadfastly refusing to take them down. Justice Moore defiantly broke laws of separation of church and state because he considered them to be unjust.
Though I disagree with Moore’s beliefs, the logic of his actions very much resembles that of Newsom’s and civil rights activists. In doing what he did, Justice Moore forced the higher courts and the public to question the validity of the separation of church and state laws which he abhorred. Though both rebuked Moore, the tactics of Moore, Newsom, and King represent a way for which oppressed minorities can try to change the system. In a society that is hostile to change, sometimes such actions are necessary to get people to open their eyes.
Neil Visalvanich is a junior history and political science major.