ACLU Attorneys are at the Forefront of the Same-sex Marriage Battle
by Jen Harris
We all know them. They are our friends, our family, our neighbors and our colleagues. They are a collection of diverse, passionate leaders who do not gauge their work in hours, but rather, results. They are tireless and ever-confident in the possibility of transformation, seeing every need as an opportunity for improvement.
LGBTQIA activists, paid or voluntary, are the backbone of the Equality movement. They are the courageous conductors of change. Without the individuals who place the betterment of the whole over the priorities of self, the front lines of the revolutionary movement would be stagnant, or worse yet, nonexistent. Invoking their skills, talents and resources, these individuals are sterling examples of good people doing good work in our community. In this and upcoming issues, “Community Spotlight” will focus on the people behind the logos, the commercials, the rallies, the fundraising and the legislation to acknowledge, with great pride, their efforts which unite our communities and keep equal rights to the forefront of the debate.
In this issue, we look at two of the many individuals who have worked behind the scenes, spending countless hours in courtrooms across the country to abolish legally sanctioned discrimination and fortify the rights and protections of individuals across the spectrum of sexuality.
One of the organizations working for LGBT equality is the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU has engaged in legal battles for LGBT rights on a state and federal level since 1936 with more than 200 staff attorneys, four of which work for the ACLU-MO (Missouri) chapter and are responsible for the October 2014 ruling in which Circuit Judge J. Dale Youngs struck down part of Missouri’s same-sex marriage ban, making the state recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
A federal judge ruled on Nov. 7 that Missouri’s ban on same-sex marriage violated the U.S. Constitution. U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith found that a Missouri law and an amendment to the state’s constitution violated the U.S. Constitution’s due process clause and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But Smith said his order would not take effect until any appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court is concluded. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said the state would appeal.
In Kansas, the status of same-sex marriage license applications appears to remain a county-by-county determination. As of Nov. 18, same-sex couples in at least 10 counties – including Johnson, Wyandotte and Douglas – appeared able to obtain marriage licenses. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has said his defense of the state’s gay marriage ban is designed to get a final decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.
At the forefront of the ACLU-MO are two remarkable individuals who together bring 40-plus years of legal expertise, military and personal experience to the battle for equality.
Who: Jeffrey Mittman
What: Executive Director
Where: ACLU of Missouri
“I was 16 in 1978 when the ACLU defended the right to free speech for the Nazis’ march on Skokie,” said Mittman. “As a man who is very proud of my Judaism, it was fascinating to me that there was an organization (the ACLU) that stood up for principles, indiscriminately. That experience also taught me that our country is bigger than a hateful message. The ACLU works for racial justice, voting rights, women’s rights, criminal justice reform, and ending the death penalty. It’s phenomenal to me that one organization can be so consistent on so many issues with one philosophy: focus on the principle of the matter.”
Formerly Mittman owned a private litigation practice and served four years as an Airborne Ranger, Qualified Army Infantry Officer and took part in the last NATO war exercises before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A graduate of Yale and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, Mittman took a year off of work and celebrated his 40th birthday at the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala. He is the first executive director the ACLU of Missouri who is a member of the LGBT community, as well as an avid outdoorsman. The Southern California native became a member of the ACLU in 1992. He joined the board and was a chapter chair of Northern California in 1998, beginning contract employment in 2004, serving on the staff of Washington Legislation in 2006. In 2008 Mittman became the director of ALCU-Alaska and then the ACLU-Missouri in June 2013. One could say he’s well-versed in all things ACLU and as dedicated as they come. “We all stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Mittman. “If we look at the issue of LGBT rights, it’s unusual in our time to see such horrible decisions (DADT, DOMA, Prop 8) and then see those decisions turned around to court victories. There are always those in a majority of social, political, or economic power who want to hold on to that power and those who try to impose their values on minorities, or to take the power of choice away from others. We must work together as a community to ensure individual liberties. The constitution is a powerful tool so that anybody, of any group, can use the courts and the political process to level the playing field, even though there is not always an equal outcome.”
Who: Tony Rothert
What: Legal Director
Where: ACLU of Missouri
A native Iowan, Rothert attended St. Louis University as an undergrad and graduate student with an emphasis on social work. “I have always rooted for the underdog,” said Rothert. “I joined the ACLU because I want to make people’s lives better. That was my initial reason why I looked at helping professions. I like to break through barriers, but I found social work frustrating because I had to work within the limitations of the current legislation. I chose to go to law school to change the laws.” As legal director of ACLU-Missouri, Rothert has led a team of four attorneys since 2006. “I’m fortunate to have a job where I’m proud every day. One of the first cases I worked on when I started at ACLU-MO was a case challenging Missouri’s prohibition on allowing gay couples to be foster parents. We won that case and it opened my eyes to many things, and really showed me and helped me understand that there are children in need of homes and people who were willing to give them homes. Being able to connect those children with those families and making changes in the lives of children is something I’m really proud of. Many of the things we do provide a positive impact of people.” Rothert and his partner Brian are fathers to two boys ages 12 and 14, and he spends his rare free time coaching his son’s soccer team. Family values are on the forefront of his agenda. “Great strides have been made for LGBT to be treated like the normal, regular people that they are,” said Rothert. “Marriage is an important institution in our society. It holds a lot of symbolism and respect and excluding LGBT individuals from that institution, in addition to denying them other rights and security, puts a stain and stigma on their relationships. It’s important for them and their children to feel a full part of society.”
Both Rothert and Mittman agreed that marriage equality was foreseeable but the battles to be fought remain ever present on the minds of the LGBT advocates at the ACLU-MO. “Marriage is inevitable,” said Rothert. “However, there are states like Missouri where discriminating against LGBT individuals is still legal. We’ll be in a strange and sticky place where (the state institutions) will have to recognize (LGBT) marriages but can still fire you for being gay or discriminate against someone on housing, or refuse to serve them in a restaurant. We’ll still see that kind of discrimination happening, because it’s been happening since the beginning. Americans and Missourians have made progress treating LGBT people equally but discrimination won’t end because marriage has been achieved. We must continue to pursue state and federal protections. The thing is that it could all change tomorrow. Four months ago, I didn’t expect to be where we are now. Where we’re going next is very unpredictable, but very exciting.”