Albie Sachs speaks at UF law school

(Submitted photo)

Published: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 5:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 5:40 p.m.

Albie Sachs stared out at an expectant crowd, then lifted a long, droopy sleeve where the rest of his right arm should have been.

"This," he said, "was the arm of the struggle, of sacrifice."

Sachs, a 78-year-old former judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa, has spent a lifetime fighting for democracy, and authored the South African court's landmark decision in 2005 requiring the legal recognition of gay marriage. In 1988, he lost lost his arm and sight in one eye in a car bomb explosion.

"This," he said, lifting his right sleeve as high as he could, "was the arm of those who died and didn't see democracy in our country," he said.

On Tuesday, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case challenging California's ban on gay marriage, Sachs told a public crowd of 60 to 70 people at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law that division damages the diversity of culture and the intimacy of marriage.

Because some people see the world differently does not mean society should "divide the world into the enlightened and the blighted," he said. "That creates a culture wall."

Ultimately, people must choose, he said, to embrace the equality of a vineyard, or the equality of a graveyard. They choose equality for everyone (the vineyard) or for no one (the graveyard), he explained.

"It isn't just to say everybody should be treated in the same way," Sachs said. "It's saying everybody should have the same access to entitlements irrespective of gender, or race, or color, or in this case, sexual orientation."

The strength of marriage as an institution is worth the struggle, he said.

"One should think of the importance of marriage in our culture," he said. Marriage announcements are in the newspaper, and anniversary parties and weddings are celebrated at great lengths, he pointed out.

"The sense I get is that young Americans are embracing (the inclusivity of marriage) far more enthusiastically than their grandparents did," he said.

Although he declined to comment on any impending U.S. court decisions, saying "that's for your judges here," he said he was excited and satisfied by the number of law students interested in South African affairs.

Rob Graafland, an exchange student from the Netherlands, said he thought the speech was strong and well stated.

"He knows what he's talking about and he's dealt with it," Graafland, 26, said of Sachs, who's been tortured and exiled for his efforts to liberate South Africa from civic and racial injustice. "Probably no one is able to see it like he does."

After the speech, Graafland speculated on the progress of culture versus law.

"I guess things are more liberal in Amsterdam," he said, "but it's amazing how strict and conservative the United States is in this situation. The culture is there; it's the system that seems to be lagging."

The more Graafland spoke, the more he echoed Sachs.

"We have to try to build something that grows and produces good wine," Graafland said.

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