ACTIVITY 6: Handout 1

Separate but Equal?

In 2000, the Vermont state legislature will begin hearings to decide whether to grant same-sex couples access to full civil marriage or a “separate but equal” system of domestic partnership. The question of whether separate can ever be equal has been debated frequently, perhaps most passionately within the context of racial segregation in the United States. Read the summaries below of the two pivotal cases that established and dismantled the legal concept of separate but equal as it related to racial segregation. Consider the lessons of these cases and the implications for same-sex marriage legislation today.

Plessy v. Ferguson

On June 7, 1892, a 30-year-old “colored” shoemaker named Homer Plessy was jailed for sitting in the “white” car of the East Louisiana Railroad. Plessy was only one-eighth black and seven-eighths white, but under Louisiana law, he was considered black and therefore required to sit in the “Colored” car. Plessy went to court and argued, in Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana, that the Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution (which abolished slavery and enforced the equality of the races before the law).

The judge at the trial was John Howard Ferguson, a lawyer from Massachusetts who had previously declared the Separate Car Act “unconstitutional on trains that traveled through several states.” In Plessy’s case, however, he decided that the state could choose to regulate railroad companies that operated only within Louisiana. He found Plessy guilty of refusing to leave the white car.

Plessy appealed to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, which upheld Ferguson’s decision. In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States heard Plessy’s case and found him guilty once again. The Plessy decision set the precedent that “separate” facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were “equal.” The “separate but equal” doctrine was quickly extended to cover many areas of public life, such as restaurants, theaters, restrooms, and public schools.

Brown v. Board of Education

In Topeka, Kansas, in the 1950s, a black third-grader named Linda Brown had to walk one mile through a railroad switchyard to get to her black elementary school, even though a white elementary school was only seven blocks away. Linda’s father, Oliver Brown, tried to enroll her in the white elementary school, but the principal of the school refused. Brown went to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for help. In 1951, the NAACP requested an injunction that would forbid the segregation of Topeka’s public schools. At the trial, the NAACP argued that segregated schools sent the message to black children that they were inferior to whites; therefore, the schools were inherently unequal.

The precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson allowed separate but equal school systems for blacks and whites, and no Supreme Court ruling had overturned Plessy yet. Because of the precedent of Plessy, the court felt “compelled” to rule in favor of the Board of Education.

Brown and the NAACP appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on October 1, 1951, and their case was combined with other cases that challenged school segregation in South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren read the decision of the unanimous Court:

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does...We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal…

The Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy for public education, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and required the desegregation of schools across America. The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision did not abolish segregation in other public areas, such as restaurants and restrooms, nor did it require desegregation of public schools by a specific time. It did, however, declare the permissive or mandatory segregation that existed in 21 states unconstitutional. It was a giant step towards complete desegregation of public schools.

Baker v. State of Vermont

In a landmark decision, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled on December 20, 1999 in favor of three same-sex couples who challenged the constitutionality of Vermont’s marriage laws. Writing for the court, Justice Amestoy declared,

The extension of the common benefits clause to acknowledge plaintiffs as Vermonters who seek nothing more, nor less, than legal protection and security for their avowed commitment to an intimate and lasting human relationship is simply, when all is said and done, a recognition of our common humanity.

The court concluded that the benefits and protections of marriage must be extended to same-sex couples. The court directed the legislature to remedy the discrimination, making Vermont the first state in the union to extend the legal rights of marriage to same-sex couples. The Vermont state legislature is now faced with the question of whether to extend full civil marriage to same-sex couples or to create a separate but equal system.

The Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education cases present historical parallels that cannot be overlooked in deciding the fate of same-sex Vermont couples. What do you think Vermont legislators should take away from past lessons in arriving at a just decision today?