The 14th Amendment, Same-Sex Marriage, and Essex County, Vermont

L to R:  Rose Fitzgerald, Barbara Peaslee Smith, Teri Anderson, 2009.

L to R: Rose Fitzgerald, Barbara Peaslee Smith, Teri Anderson, after Teri and Rose’s wedding ceremony, December 2009.

Friday, June 26, 2015.  The United States Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples are entitled to a legal marriage anywhere in the nation.

This is a memorable, landmark ruling.  The Court took the long overdue step of applying the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and making marriage a fundamental right for same sex couples.  The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868.  Section I reads as follows:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” 

The amendment was crafted in the aftermath of the Civil War, during Reconstruction, in an attempt to furnish equality under the law to the former slaves emancipated by the 13th Amendment.  In the years since, the 14th Amendment has been the linchpin of thousands of legal rulings across the nation–covering issues ranging from gender equality, to affirmative action, to the right to travel, or to use contraception (to name only a few!)

The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t exactly been the vanguard or cutting edge of change over the years.  The Court has lagged behind both popular sentiment and state jurisprudence on some of the thorniest issues of our time.   Likewise here:  on the eve of the Court’s ruling, welcome as it was, over 70% of the states had legalized same-sex marriage, either through state or federal litigation, or through their legislatures.   In a pioneering 2003 ruling, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was the first to legalize same-sex marriage.  Other state courts followed, in quick succession.  In 2009, my home state of Vermont was the first to green-light same sex unions by vote of the Legislature.(Vermont had previously paved the way by enacting the nation’s first civil union law.)

A couple of months after the Vermont law went into effect, my beloved friends Teri Anderson and Rose Fitzgerald were married here in Guildhall, Vermont.  At the time, I was the Town Clerk of my little municipality, and I had the privilege of issuing them their marriage license, the first in Essex County, Vermont.   They were married at a ceremony at the Town offices by local Justice of the Peace Barbara Peaslee Smith, and there was a joyous celebration into the wee hours of the morning, with music and a bonfire on the Town green.  Now, Teri and Rose live with the confidence that their relationship is recognized everywhere they go in this land.

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