Seen Milk?

Under a fairly conventional narrative, conservative Christian political activism emerged in response to Roe v. Wade, and only in recent years turned attention to opposing gay rights, especially same-sex marriage. This narrative is sometimes combined with a normative claim that the Supreme Court erred in Roe, and that but for Roe, our political system would long ago have reached a stable compromise on abortion.

Anybody who believes this narrative should see the film Milk, which portrays the political career of the late Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in America. (Actually, everybody should see Milk, which is a terrific film for which Sean Penn will likely win a Best Actor Oscar.) For anyone too young to remember, the film shows how, by the mid-1970s, religious conservatives were fully engaged in opposing gay rights, opposing local anti-discrimination laws and seeking laws that would dismiss gay and lesbian teachers from their jobs.

It's worth noting that the legal developments that Anita Bryant and other religious conservatives opposed in the 1970s were political developments, not the products of judicial decisions. They sought to overturn liberal measures adopted by local governments. This suggests that people who warn against courts moving too fast to recognize same-sex marriage rights (or other rights) are naive. Religious conservatives who oppose liberalization of laws regarding homosexuality, abortion and other social issues will be galvanized into reaction by any change, regardless of whether it comes from the courts or through the democratic process. That fact is not itself a reason for courts to act, but it does suggest that concerns about backlash inspired by courts as such are overblown.

Posted by Mike Dorf