Members of Congress and the public paid tribute to the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) this week at the U.S. Capitol in both a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, where his American flag-draped coffin was placed, and on the steps outside the East Front of the Capitol, where members of the public also paid their respects to the civil rights legend.
Lewis, who was serving his 17th term in Congress, died July 18 at the age of 80 from complications associated with pancreatic cancer.
LGBTQ rights advocates, who considered Lewis a strong ally in the cause of LGBTQ rights, may remember that Lewis’s commitment to LGBTQ equality was on full display at the Capitol nearly 16 years ago when on Sept. 30, 2004, Lewis delivered a speech on the House floor strongly opposing a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
It was at a time when more than a dozen states had passed their own laws or state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Lewis’s floor speech also took place in the midst of the 2004 presidential election when then-President George W. Bush backed the proposed federal constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in what political commentators called an attempt to create a wedge issue to boost support for his re-election.
Even Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry of Massachusetts, while opposing the constitutional amendment, said he did not support same-sex marriage but supported civil unions for gays and lesbians instead.
Lewis’s floor speech opposing the constitutional amendment came during a two-and-a-half-hour House debate on the proposal in which several supporters of the amendment submitted petitions from black churches backing the amendment and denouncing same-sex marriage.
This reporter, who watched the debate from the House Press Gallery, observed Lewis using his skills as an orator with his characteristic booming voice to refute arguments in favor of the amendment. The vocal emphasis he gave in saying why he opposed the amendment isn’t completely reflected in the written transcript of his speech, which the Blade is publishing today.
Among other things, Lewis referred to the famous 1965 civil rights protest he led across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in which he suffered a concussion when he and other protesters were beaten by state troopers. He said he was demonstrating then to “end discrimination, segregation and separation” and his opposition to the so-called Marriage Protection Amendment was based on his longstanding opposition to discrimination.
“To pass this legislation would be a step backward,” he told his House colleagues. “The institution of marriage is not begging this Congress for protection,” he said. “No one is running around this building saying protect us.”
At the conclusion of the debate the House defeated the proposed same-sex marriage ban by failing to reach a required two-thirds majority for a constitutional amendment. But the proposed amendment nevertheless received a majority vote of 227 in favor and 186 against, with 22 House members not voting.
Sept. 30, 2004
House of Representatives Debate on the Marriage Protection Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in the United States.
The proposed amendment stated, “Marriage in the United States shall consist solely of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the Constitution of any State shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than a man and a woman.”
Mr. LEWIS of Georgia. Mr. Speaker, over the years, this Nation has worked hard to take discrimination out of the Constitution, and today, we want to put it back in.
I can recall just a few short years ago that there were laws inscribed in some State constitutions saying that blacks and whites could not marry. We changed that.
Today, we look back on those days, and we laugh. There will come a time when generations yet unborn will look back on this Congress, look back on this debate, and laugh at us. This is not a good day in America. This is a sad day in the House of the people.
For one who faced death, who was beaten and left bloody and unconscious at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, Alabama, in May of 1961; for one who had a concussion at the bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965, demonstrating, trying to end discrimination, segregation and separation, this is not the way.
This is unbelievable. It is unreal. I thought as a Nation and as a people we had moved so far down the road toward one family, one House, one America.
To pass this legislation would be a step backward.
The institution of marriage is not begging this Congress for protection. No one is running through the halls of Congress. No one is running around this building saying protect us.
Whose marriage is threatened? Whose marriage is in danger if two people, in the privacy of their own hearts, decide they want to be committed to each other? Whose marriage is threatened?
Whose marriage is in danger if we decide to recognize the dignity, the worth and humanity of all human beings?
The constitution is a sacred document. It defines who we are as a Nation and as a people. Over the years, we have tried to make it more and more inclusive. We cannot turn back. We do not want to go back. We want to go forward. Today it is gay marriage; tomorrow it will be something else.
Forget about the politics; vote your conscience. Vote with your heart, vote with your soul, vote with your gut. Do what is right and defeat this amendment.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.