In landmark rulings, Supreme Court redefines equality

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Brandon Benoit (C) hugs Martha Acevedo (L), 25, and Briana Castaneda, 23, as they celebrate the Supreme Court ruling at a watch party at Equality California, a non-profit civil rights organization that advocates for the rights of LGBT people in California, on June 26, 2013 in West Hollywood, California. The high court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and ruled that supporters of California's ban on gay marriage, Proposition 8, could not defend it before the Supreme Court. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Brandon Benoit (C) hugs Martha Acevedo (L), 25, and Briana Castaneda, 23, as they celebrate the Supreme Court ruling at a watch party at Equality California, a non-profit civil rights organization that advocates for the rights of LGBT people in California, on June 26, 2013 in West Hollywood, California. The high court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and ruled that supporters of California's ban on gay marriage, Proposition 8, could not defend it before the Supreme Court. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

In a series of landmark rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court this week redefined civil rights and equality in America, further entrenching the growing national movement to allow same-sex couples the same rights as other couples, but limiting two tools that many civil rights advocates say are essential for creating a truly equal country, affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act.

In its decisions this week, the Court attempted to be measured: it did not officially invalidate the Voting Rights Act or affirmative action and took pains not to declare a federal right to a same-sex marriage. But its decisions will dramatically shift debates on race and sexual orientation in America, giving further momentum to gay rights advocates while complicating the tasks for those who defend controversial laws that highlight the racial divide that still remains in America.

The week was not a clear victory for liberals, who were angered by the Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, nor conservatives, who wanted the Court to defend laws that suggest marriage is between a man and a woman. But the Court’s decisions, particularly those of Anthony Kennedy, the swing justice who was in the majority in three of the four cases, reflect a desire for a politics and law less defined by identity.

A blow to blacks and Hispanics; gay rights ascendent

The sum of the opinions this week was to suggest that blacks and Hispanics are not substantially more disadvantaged than whites in getting into college, Southerners no more eager to discriminate against minority voters than those in the rest of the country, and same-sex couples not deserving of any fewer freedoms and benefits than opposite-sex couples.

Discrimination, at least in the Court’s eyes, must be especially obvious, like the way the Defense of Marriage Act bars more than 1,000 benefits from gay couples. The huge gap in tests scores between blacks and whites and the continued divide between blacks and whites in Southern politics, realities that civil rights advocates say require Voting Rights Act and affirmative action, were not deemed sufficient barriers to equality by the Court’s majority to defend provisions intended to address them.

In some ways, the Court was already reinforcing what the American public has decided. Gay rights are ascendant, with states across the country moving to allow gay marriage, nearly all Democratic politicians now supporting same-sex unions and Republicans either also shifting in that direction or simply saying nothing about the issue, assuming a reality that gay unions will eventually be commonplace in America.  At the same time, even some liberals are questioning affirmative action, and there is little sign of it gaining support among voters or politicians.

The Court’s moves and those by politicians also reflect a changing definition and composition of the “civil rights movement” in today’s America. African-American politicians and political activists, once wary of linking other groups to the mantra of “civil rights,” enthusiastically embraced the Court’s ruling on gay marriage and have joined with Hispanic groups urging Congress to make it easier for undocumented Latino workers in the U.S. to become citizens.

Still decisions to be made

“The laws of our land are catching up to the fundamental truth that millions of Americans hold in our hearts, when all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free,” President Obama said in a statement after the gay marriage rulings were released, continuing a continual pattern of his linking gay marriage to the broader, longer push for equal rights by groups in America who previously faced discrimination.

But the Court’s decisions this week, while monumental, still leave much to the rest of the democratic process in America. Gay marriage, despite the Court’s rulings, is still banned in most of the states in the country.

Affirmative action, at least in theory, is still legal almost everywhere. Controversial voting practices, like voter ID laws, are now legal in Texas, but not in Wisconsin, where a judge last year cited the state’s constitution, not federal law, in blocking a Voter ID provision. Questions about what constitutes equality, civil rights and discrimination will remain hotly contested.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr