We shouldn't vote on people's rights

Why I won't be signing the petition to send same-sex marriage to referendum

March 04, 2012|Dan Rodricks

CardinalEdwin F. O'Brienof Baltimore calls same-sex marriage, signed into law by the Maryland governor on Thursday, a "radical redefinition of marriage." Of course, many people — most likely a majority — believed 50 years ago that ending racial segregation in the United States constituted a "radical redefinition" of American society. The races were meant to be separate, they said; it wasn't natural for blacks and whites to drink from the same fountains, and they certainly should never be allowed to marry each other.

Also along the rocky road of history, some described Catholics as "papists" — that is, more loyal to the Vatican than to the republic — and Catholics for many years were seen, along with blacks and Jews, as threats to the dominant, white Protestant culture, presenting a "radical redefinition" of the American way of life.

But, of course, we got over it, for the most part.

It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It took unyielding belief in the "self evident" truth the founders declared in 1776, that "all men are created equal." It took leadership: white Protestant preachers and politicians who emerged from the majority to protect minorities. They helped smash Jim Crow and wrote new laws. These were Americans who believed there should be only one form of citizenship in the United States: first-class citizenship for all.

In signing the same-sex marriage law passed by the General Assembly, the governor has bestowed full first-class citizenship on men and women who are homosexual and who wish to be legally married in the state of Maryland.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. Those who oppose the extension of this right to homosexuals are going to spend time and money on a drive to get same-sex marriage on November's ballot.

Among the groups behind this effort is the Maryland Marriage Alliance, composed of mostly black ministers. Their opposition to same-sex marriage as a state-granted right is based wholly in the religious belief that homosexuality is a sin. It is an irrational argument, not a legal one — much like the arguments that were used to maintain racial segregation years ago.

Some of these ministers are offended at the suggestion that they are on the wrong side; they are outraged at the comparison between the fight for marriage equality and the fight for civil rights. So, in this matter, they are eager to subject a question of rights for a minority to a statewide vote. They are blind to same-sex marriage as a question of human justice.

I ask these preachers to imagine what would have happened had Jim Crow laws been put to referendum in each state of the former Confederacy. Imagine what would have happened had the Civil Rights Act been put to a national referendum instead of a vote of Congress in 1965. A majority of voters probably would have extended the life of Jim Crow in the South and de facto segregation in the North. The majority would have crushed the minority's plea for equality.

Here we are in 2012, and homosexual Americans, truly a minority of our citizens, are asking legislatures across the country to consider extending them full, first-class citizenship. They are making progress.

A few weeks ago, the state legislature in New Jersey passed same-sex marriage. But here's the twist: The New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, vetoed the bill, saying "an issue of this magnitude and importance ... should be left to the people of New Jersey to decide."

That's a cop-out, of course. First, same-sex marriage is not an issue of "magnitude and importance" to a majority of people, and Mr. Christie knows that. He also knows that, in matters of civil rights — of human justice — progress has been won not by plebiscite but by political leaders and elected representatives showing civil courage, writing and amending laws that extend equality, and by courts ruling on their constitutionality.

Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, said it best:

"We should not be putting civil rights issues up to a popular vote to be subject to the sentiments, the passions of the day. No minority should have their rights subject to the passions and sentiments of the majority. This is a fundamental bedrock of what our nation stands for."

In Maryland, the legislature and governor did the right thing by extending first-class citizenship for all, and we should leave it at that.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/DanRodricks.

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