The Japanese American Citizens League and the Manzanar Committee have expressed outrage over Justice Clarence Thomas’ comments in his dissenting opinion on the same-sex marriage decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court last Friday.

Thomas wrote, “The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits.

“The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.”

Justice Clarence Thomas
Justice Clarence Thomas

Priscilla Ouchida, JACL executive director, stated, “The Japanese American Citizens League is appalled with Justice Thomas’ correlation that ties laws prohibiting same-sex marriage to the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The government’s actions to incarcerate every man, woman, and child of Japanese ancestry in 1942 are contrary to the principles of individual rights and due process. The mass removal of Americans from their homes was tantamount to the destruction of a community, a culture, and an American system of constitutional protections.

“And, as suggested by Justice [Anthony] Kennedy in his majority opinion, dignity is inherent in notions of due process where individuals cannot be deprived of life, liberty or property. There is no dignity in inequality.”

Founded in 1929, the JACL represents members in over 100 communities in 26 states. It was the first non-LGBTQ civil rights organization to adopt a resolution in support of marriage equality in 1994.

The Manzanar Committee noted that the Supreme Court’s majority ruled in Obergefell, et al. v. Hodges, Director, Ohio Department of Health, et al, that laws restricting marriage to a union between a man and a woman, as well as laws preventing states from recognizing same sex marriages performed in other states, are unconstitutional.

The court found that such laws violate the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which dictates that “no 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.”

In response to Thomas’ dissent, Manzanar Committee Co-chair Bruce Embrey said, “There is no doubt that oppressed people throughout history have managed to maintain their dignity. Our families managed to remain dignified and proud despite being subjected to the humiliation and violence while forcibly removed from their homes and communities at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt after the outbreak of World War II.”

However, Embrey continued, “It is a dangerous and troubling sign that a United States Supreme Court Justice apparently believes that because people can maintain their dignity despite horrific oppression, incarceration or deprivation of civil rights, they do not need equal protection under the law. Following his logic, it appears that if Justice Thomas had been a member of Congress during the struggle for redress and reparations, he would he have held that the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was not necessary since the Japanese American people maintained their dignity.

“It is simply astounding that Justice Thomas apparently has no understanding of our history, and of the relationship between our government and the people. Our government took away our community’s liberty, civil and human rights, and facilitated the economic and social devastation of the Japanese American community.

“The efforts of many in government, and in broader society, to humiliate and profit from our community’s plight were unjust and undignified. This is precisely why it was necessary to demand the U.S. government recognize the forced removal was unconstitutional and redress it legally.”

Embrey went on to hail the majority ruling by the court: “Thankfully, the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court clearly sees the importance of ensuring LGBT people will no longer be denied the same rights we all enjoy. Marriage equality is a right for all people.”

The Manzanar Committee is dedicated to educating and raising public awareness about the incarceration and violation of civil rights of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II and to the continuing struggle of all peoples when constitutional rights are in danger.

Actor/activist George Takei, who was interned as a child, had this to say in a commentary posted on MSNBC: “For many, it was indeed a great loss of self-worth and respect, a terrible blow to the pride of the many parents who sought only to protect their children from coming to harm. Justice Thomas need have spent just one day with us in the mosquito-infested swamplands in that Arkansas heat, eating the slop served from the kitchen, to understand that it was the government’s very intent to strip us of our dignity and our humanity.

“Whether it succeeded with all of us is another question: There was a guiding spirit of what we called ‘gaman’ — to endure with fortitude, head held high — helping us get through those terrible years. At the end of it all, each internee was handed a bus ticket and 25 dollars, on which we were expected to rebuild our lives. Many never did.

“To say that the government does not bestow or grant dignity does not mean it cannot succeed in stripping it away through the imposition of unequal laws and deprivation of due process. At the very least, the government must treat all its subjects with equal human dignity. To deny a group the rights and privileges of others, based solely on an immutable characteristic such as race – or as in Obergefell, sexual orientation – is to strip them of human dignity and of the liberty to live as others live.

“It seems odd that Justice Thomas, as an African American, would be an opponent of marriage equality. His own current marriage, if he had sought to have it some 50 years ago, would have been illegal under then-existing anti-miscegenation laws. I cannot help but wonder if Justice Thomas would have felt any loss of dignity had the clerk’s office doors been shut in his face, simply because he was of a different race than his fiancée.

“It is a sad irony that he now enjoys the dignity of his marriage, equal in the eyes of the law to any others, while in the same breath proclaiming that the denial of marriage to LGBTs works no indignity.”

To read Takei’s full commentary and hear his remarks about Donald Trump’s position on marriage equality, click here.

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