The Supreme Court, in a move that could have dire consequences for gays and other minorities, agreed Tuesday to decide whether a Colorado anti-gay initiative is constitutional.
It will be the first time in a decade that the court has addressed the increasingly contentious issue of gay rights. The court narrowly upheld a Georgia law banning sodomy in 1986.
The Colorado case involves a 2-year-old amendment to the state constitution that prohibits the state and localities from protecting gays or lesbians from discrimination.
The Colorado Supreme Court ruled last October that the amendment violates the right to equal protection because it would “fence out” an identifiable class of people - in this case, gays - from participating in the electoral process. It did not base its ruling on traditional concepts of gay rights, such as the right of privacy.
The court went on to reject each of five justifications for the amendment offered by the state: that it was important to protect the religious freedom of landlords or employers who object to homosexuality; that it protects “family privacy” because state acceptance of homosexuality would undermine parental teaching against it; that it protects the “personal privacy” of those who do not wish to associate with homosexuals; that it would divert resources from enforcing other civil rights laws; and that it would protect “public, social and moral norms” like heterosexual families.
Chai Feldblum, a law professor at Georgetown University, said the Supreme Court’s ruling will be critical not only for gays but also “in the long term sense for any vulnerable minority in this country. Twenty years from now people with mental disabilities could be cut out of the political process.”
The fact that the court voted to re-examine a ruling favorable to gays worried some lawyers for the gay community. A ruling favoring opponents of gay rights could cause such initiatives to mushroom across the country, they said.
Last November, voters in Oregon and Idaho defeated anti-gay-rights amendments.
Eight states and some localities currently offer gays some kind of protection.
In its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the state argued that the court was wrong in holding that the amendment dilutes homosexuals’ right to vote.
The Colorado attorney general said the state court’s ruling was a “dramatic and unwarranted interference in the political process.”