Turning the Tide - Social Week


By Molly Stazzone

Photo courtesy of Fibonacci Blue.

Last year, Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was overturned by the US Supreme Court which ruled that the law was unconstitutional. Since then 19 states have legalized gay marriage, but social norms still exist in legal and business firms across the nation.

The DOMA Act was passed by Congress in 1996 and signed by former President Bill Clinton. Its purpose defined marriage as being a relationship between a man and a woman. It also gave states permission to reject same-sex marriages. The part that defined what marriage is was known as Section 3.

In June 2013 the US Supreme Court ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional. This is the 20th ruling by either a federal or state judge that a discriminatory state marriage ban is overturned.

In the time since that ruling, a curious trend has arisen among America’s law firms that may show how social norms can affect the momentum between two opposing viewpoints in the battlefields of the nation’s courtrooms.

BTR sat down with Brian Silva, the Executive Director of Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA). Founded in 1996, MEUSA is one of the nation’s oldest organizations to support marriage equality in every state and at the federal level. MEUSA’s 40,000 members and volunteer leaders operating in all 50 states make it the largest volunteer organization of its kind. Its foundations, however, hark back to a much different time in American life.

“The non-profit organization actually started after the DOMA Law was passed. In New York City during this time people were outraged by this law,” says Silva.

Silva was happy to know that more people, especially young people, accept same-sex marriages and couples. “I think that young people have friends who are gay. There are more TV shows and movies promote the LGBTQ Community, I don’t think it has fallen.”

A Pew Research Center report published last year found that America’s LGBT community felt that society at large has veritably “accepted them for who they are” for more than the past decade. Young Republicans between the ages of 18-29 favor gay marriage more than any other age group in their party. They agree on gay marriage 61 percent. All parties between the ages of 18-29 accept gay marriage.

The actions young adults are taking to support gay marriage their human rights are incredible. However, there remain powerful players with deeply held convictions and social norms that they say won’t be changed.

Take for example Brendan Eich, the former CEO of Mozilla. In April of this year Eich resigned from the company after being denounced by gay marriage supporters, following a donation he gave to California’s since-overturned marriage ban. Mozilla is an international business that offers choice to customers and powers innovation to the World Wide Web. The non-profit created the browser called Firefox in 2004.

In similar cases major attorney firms are receiving the message that if you want to go against gay marriage say it or do it elsewhere.

Silva said, “From what I have heard and seen the vast majority of legal industries are for gay marriage.”

In many cases, law firms filed friend-of-court briefs on behalf of allies including gay marriage groups. Law professionals and big companies such as Amazon, Google, and Starbucks have all made commitments to the parties’ litigation. All workers are either doing these cases for free or on cut rates. This is called the “pro bono” program to provide legal services they deem to be in the public interest.

However, the changing tide of social norms on the issue of marriage equality can be tracked within the vast majority of legal industries. Gene Schaerr, a partner for Winston & Strawn left the firm to represent Utah in its gay marriage battle against equal rights. Online commentators suspected Schaerr left W&S because the firm worked with LGBT groups.

Winston & Strawn is a law practicing firm that provides their clients with understanding of labor employment, taxes, intellectual property, and litigation services.

Law firms can also be sensitive to an annual “corporate equality” index published by the Human Rights Campaign, which is a gay rights advocacy group founded in 1980. It awards points for such factors as benefits to same-sex partners and support for gay-marriage court acts. Their 2014 Corporate Equality Index is the national benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices pertinent to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees. This year marks the 12th Human Right Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index.

The corporation docks those who oppose it. Most law firms achieved a 100 percent rating, while in 2011 the 900-lawyer firm Foley & Lardner received an 85 percent rating–the following year their number dropped to 60 percent.

The Human Rights Campaign warned Foley of the impending rating in one of their letters, “…After a thoughtful conversation, we made the difficult decision to deduct points from Foley & Lardner’s score because of the firm’s leadership and advocacy on behalf of client working exclusively to oppose marriage equality…”

In an interview Human Rights Campaign’s Spokesman, Fred Sainz said, “Fear is a healthy motivator to so the right thing. I’m not suggesting that the other side shouldn’t have attorneys. I’m saying we’re going to judge those attorneys.”

Although there are still challenges to overcome for the LGBT community and supporters, Silva states that he is looking forward to seeing more people come together, get married, and live their lives in the wake of the DOMA ruling. “When we heard the result of the law was unconstitutional we were absolutely ecstatic. The court got it correct, and we knew we could continue our work.”