On July 11, 1996, Congressman John Lewis spoke out against the Defense of Marriage Act. Now, 17 years later, as the Supreme Court hears arguments on whether or not the time has come to overturn the controversial law, he is still speaking out. And this time, people are listening.
Rooted in his own experiences, the Lewis of 1996 drew parallels between his encounters with discrimination and those being levied against members of the gay community with the passage of DOMA. “I will not turn my back on another American,” he said in a House hearing. “I will not oppress my fellow human being. I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation.” Lewis, one of the major players in the American civil rights movement, likened DOMA to an act defending bigotry and dividing Americans, suggesting “it should be called the defense of mean-spirited bigots act.”
To Tamron Hall on Wednesday, Lewis said that now was the time to fix the wrongs done by the passage of DOMA. Acknowledging that sometimes it takes time for people to “get it right”–former President Clinton, for example–Lewis seemed satisfied with the direction the Justices seemed to be moving the discussion in Wednesday’s oral arguments, saying that they were raising the right questions about the law. And according to reports from NBC’s Pete Williams, the votes appear to be there to strike down DOMA–though how narrowly the ruling would be applied remains to be seen.
“If we fail to get it right, history will not be kind to us as a nation,” Lewis told Hall. It’s not that the issue is too new or the social movement in favor of same sex marriage too small. To Lewis, the problem is politicians who too infrequently stand up for what they believe. “Sometimes politicians live in fear rather than lead…it’s time for all of us to be headlights; not tail lights. Politicians should be leaders…and serve as good teachers. Teach people the way to go. That’s what I tried to say 17 years ago.”
The Supreme Court is expected to decide United States v. Windsor in mid to late June.