The piecemeal struggle for marriage equality in the United States experienced a setback as well as a victory this past week, when on Wednesday the New York Senate rejected a same-sex marriage bill, signed by Gov. David A. Paterson, 38 to 24, according to Jeremy W. Peters of the New York Times. On Tuesday, meanwhile, the DC Council voted 11 to 2 on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the first of three steps, the last of which the bill’s sponsors maintain is almost certain, reported Tim Craig of The Washington Post. The sponsors expect civil same-sex marriage to be taking place in the District by Spring.
The idea behind the bill in Washington is not a new consideration, however, but illustrates the long, arduous struggle for equality by its proponents. According to Tim Craig of The Washington Post, “Council members and gay rights activists hailed the vote as the end of a decades-long struggle that started in 1975, when then-council member Arrington Dixon (D) first proposed legalizing same-sex marriage in the District.” The fact that Dixon’s proposal has taken over three decades to realize only highlights the controversial nature of same-sex unions in America, and the pressure that elected officials experience to represent the interests of their constituents while paying heed to considerations of constitutional law.
While in both New York state and Washington, DC, a governing body presided over the proposal, legal recognition of such unions has also been petitioned, put to public vote, and repealed, as in Maine and California, or approved in the form of separate-but-equal status, as in the case of domestic partnerships in Washington state, where same-sex couples possess all the rights and responsibilities of married couples except for the word marriage. The trend of legislatures approving same-sex unions and their subsequent repeal by public vote reveals the endemic belief in America not only that established institutions should remain static in nature, but also that minority issues should be subject to the will of the majority.
This belief begs us to ask what the definition of democracy is. One common-held belief is that a democracy is a system of government in which the people govern themselves through either public vote or elected representatives, and in which the majority opinion rules over that of the minority. We might flesh out this definition to reveal a fundamental principle: the reason an individual has the right to have their own opinion represented with respect to a given legal issue is precisely that the issue directly involves or affects that individual; if it does not, there is no fair or rational basis for the individual to demand a voice in the matter.
It is up to each of us to decide whether this is a satisfactory definition, but for the moment let us use it for the sake of argument. To relate this definition of democracy to the recent spate of bills and propositions in the U.S. concerning same-sex marriage, consider a simple syllogism: A democracy is a system of government in which the majority rule, through public vote or elected representatives, on issues which directly affect the majority. Same-sex marriage does not directly affect the majority, but only the minority. Therefore, majority rule on same-sex marriage is undemocratic.
In 1982, in the presence of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Queen Elizabeth II signed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, one of the chief objectives of which is “to protect minorities against parliamentary majorities”, or “tyranny of the majority” in Canadian parlance. The creators of the Charter believed that majority opinion had no place in the affairs of the minority, and that therefore it was the duty of a democratic government to protect the minority from impingement by the majority.
Civil same-sex marriage would not compel ministers to officiate weddings in religious contexts, and these ministers would retain the religious freedom to deny recognition of any union they chose; meanwhile, same-sex couples would enjoy the rights and responsibilities of a bond recognised by a state which distinguishes between majority and minority concerns. Moreover, elected representatives would be fulfilling their democratic duties by representing their constituents only on issues which affect them.
We must ask ourselves whether such a distinction is long overdue in the legal struggle for marriage equality in the United States.
Image: Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
Senator Thomas K. Duane gave Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson a kiss after she said she would support same-sex marriage.