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Lincoln's words still work

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Just days before the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, our nation's official civil prayer, a federal court ruling in central Pennsylvania regarding the state's same-sex-marriage ban showed that there remains plenty of vitality in those sacred words.

It took Lincoln all of a few minutes to say them that day long ago, a mere 10 sentences, about 270 words. There was genius in their brevity, making them veritable sound bites in an age of two-hour orations, permitting them to be republished in toto in newspapers across the land, lending them to easy memorization by schoolchildren to this day.

There were some politicians present on that crisp morning last week — a governor, two United States senators and others — as is customary at such times. Speaking at any field of fallen heroes is the toughest of all duties for public officials but following Lincoln at Gettysburg is impossible. What can you say when there is nothing left to say?

It is a sure bet that no one at the ceremony was there to hear today's leaders speak. They all longed to hear Lincoln's words one more time, where he said them first, on the chance that they could get just a bit closer to the moment, to the man. Many awaited their favorite phrase that day, the one they hold in their hearts or use to inspire others.

As that first powerful virtue was announced in Lincoln's opening words, “that all men are created equal,” few if any realized that just down the road, a few days earlier, a federal judge had put those words to work once again. This civil rights struggle is about Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriages, and the strategy of state officials to keep the issue tied up in state court seems to have run headlong into Lincoln.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones rejected attempts to have a federal challenge to same-sex marriage dismissed. Motions had been filed by the titular defenders of the ban, including the Pennsylvania secretaries of Health and Revenue, contending that equal protection and due process challenges of the state law should stay in state court. But Jones ordered them to prepare for trial — fast-tracking justice.

The Gettysburg Address is a meditation and it is easy to get lost in those venerated words, losing touch with all that they still mean in America and how they should direct our lives. That might explain why some of our leaders can heap praise upon Lincoln's words but miss the connection between them and the rights of others that are still hanging in the balance.

Pennsylvania would get there eventually on its own, with no shortage of good state judges committed to justice for all, but the state path is fraught with delay and prone to legislative mischief. So let the forces be joined in federal court. Why should anyone have to wait for the promise of Lincoln that “all men are created equal”?

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).

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