Civil Rights, the Courts, and Public Opinion: The Case of Gay Marriage

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Opponents of Proposition 8, California's anti-gay marriage bill, hold signs outside of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on February 7, 2012 in San Francisco, California.

In the 1930s, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, with Thurgood Marshall at the helm, pioneered civil rights litigation tactics, strategies that eventually led to the Supreme Court declaring school segregation unconstitutional in the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall's success story set a precedent that other disadvantaged groups, including the LGBT community, followed to secure civil rights for their own communities.

While Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education can change the course of American history, they can also engender serious political backlash. Harvard Law Professor Michael Klarman examined this phenomenon in terms of race in his previous work, and he applies this argument to gay marriage in his new book, "From the Closet to the Altar: Court, Backlash and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage."

Court rulings for same-sex marriage have galvanized the LGBT community in recent years. Thrust into the public spotlight, gay couples "upended traditional stereotypes of homosexuality," as Americans watched LGBT families celebrate in the wake of gay marriage victories in the courts. And yet, the political backlash to court decisions in favor of gay marriage has clearly hindered the movement in some cases. As Klarman writes, "Were it not for Baehr [the 1993 case in which the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that excluding gay couples from marriage is discrimination], DOMA would probably not exist."