by Denise VanLanduyt
President, DeKalb Bar Association
Every time I say the pledge of allegiance or sing the national anthem I feel a strong sense of pride coupled with a tinge of sadness. With the Pledge, it is the last line: “…with liberty and justice for all.” The Star Spangled Banner in all its pride and glory makes my heart swell; yet again something always seems to be missing.
This year’s theme for Law Day is “Realizing the Dream: Equality for All,” seems appropriate. This year, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, and the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Both President Lincoln and Dr. King took a stance for the cause of liberty and freedom that in turn alienated many. Both men lost their lives for the cause of preserving the ideals set forth by our founders; the ideals that, “… that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Source: Declaration of Independence.) They were courageous men.
Early this year, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding equal treatment under the law as it relates specifically to marriage equality. The 14th Amendment very clearly tells us that:
“…[n]o State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The issue of marriage equality and equal treatment of same-sex couples has (like predecessor civil rights issues) caused a great debate in our Nation and has led many to question whether they should take an active stance on the issue. As a gay woman who has been legally married for eight wonderful years to my wife and as a lawyer who took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, I can only hope that our great Nation will come back to the core principles recited in our founding documents as a guide. As citizens, we should all strive to uphold these principles. How each of us chooses to uphold those principles should not matter so long as we do not trample upon the rights and liberties of others. We are different, but what makes us the same is the brilliance of the Declaration of Independence and the 14th Amendment in that we all have the same unalienable rights that these rights shall not be intruded upon by the government, which includes protecting the minority from the tyranny of the majority. James Madison wrote of this inherent problem and it is one we struggle with to this day.
I do not pretend to think that all will agree with me whether it be my views on liberty or more importantly, how I choose to exercise my views in support of equality. In fact, our Nation has seen struggles with civil rights and equality from its very inception. Slavery, women’s suffrage, segregation, equal pay, voting rights, and the list goes on. Each of these movements had strong supporters and just as obstinate naysayers. But let us not forget that each movement also had (and has) their quiet supporters; people who worked behind the scenes or in their day to day lives to support equality and the liberty of their fellow citizens. An example is Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) McDuffie. Lizzie, formally a domestic staff member of the Inman’s at the Swan House, located here in Atlanta was one of FDR’s most trusted domestic staff members in the White House. So trusted, that this Morris Brown College graduate in her role as the Roosevelt’s family domestic soon became the liaison between the civil rights activists and Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor, in turn shared with the President the ideals of the cause. This quiet, but deliberate, work gave the activists the ear of the leader of the free world. She too, like President Lincoln and Dr. King, was courageous in her pursuance of liberty and equality for all.
The strength of our Nation is found in each citizen’s upholding of the principles of liberty and equality as so clearly set forth in our founding documents. All who uphold these principles are courageous. I will continue to uphold the principles of liberty and equality in hopes that one day the swell of pride I feel when I sing our National Anthem or recite the pledge is no longer burdened with sadness.