My love affair with my home state of California ended on Tuesday with the passing of Proposition 8, which rewrites the state constitution to define marriage as only the union between a man and a woman.
How did this happen? Basically, a bare majority of state residents used the proposition system to strip rights from a minority. To many of us, this minority is not just unknown people 3,000 miles from here; it is made up of our friends at home and at Yale who are now uncertain that they will be able to marry.
The arguments for and against gay marriage are well-defined and revolve around the definition of marriage and who has the right to define it. People on opposite sides of the gay marriage debate may never agree on what marriage is or should be.
But if the government is going to be involved in marriages, then legal marriage must be held to the same rigorous standard of equality as every other aspect of government. This is non-negotiable. We go to great lengths in this country to make sure that no group, minority or majority, is discriminated against. If the government recognizes two different categories of these relationships — marriages and civil unions — everyone must have an equal opportunity to belong to either.
Religious institutions are free to make arbitrary rules about which marriages they sanction, but the government is not. If one church wants to say they will not marry breast cancer survivors, tattooed gang-bangers or four-fingered lepers, fine. But for the government to take an equivalent position is a blatant crime against civil rights. What gay couple wants to be married in a church where they are not welcome, anyway? Let those who do not accept do so quietly, in their homes, just as marriage is a private affair.
Perhaps the government’s greatest purpose is to protect the inalienable rights of people. The principal point of the Bill of Rights is that citizens have rights, regardless of whether they are in the minority or in the majority. A watershed Supreme Court opinion elucidates this issue. In 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act, outlawing interracial marriage. Forty-three years later, in the case of Loving v. Virginia, the high court overturned that law, calling marriage one of the “basic civil rights of man.” After 1967, then, marriage was defined as between any man and any woman; the church of course did not have to marry or recognize any couple that they did not want to, but the state would recognize that right.
Since then, marriage has been understood as a basic civil right, but somehow a group of religious people with enough money collected enough signatures to place the issue on the November ballot. (If you think I exaggerate, here are some data: the Mormon Church donated $20 million to the cause, and New Haven’s own Knights of Columbus donated $1.25 million.) I would bet I am not alone in wishing Mormons would stop knocking on my door to convert me, but I wouldn’t dream of trying to abolish their religion.
Marriage is as much a “civil right of man” as religion. Simply because a majority of people don’t believe in same-sex marriage does not mean that those who do should be barred from practicing their beliefs. Doing so is an inalienable right.
What happened this past Tuesday is appalling. That Proposition 8 was even allowed to be on the ballot, let alone be passed, is a terrible case of the tyranny of the majority. This was a vote to take away a right. A more numerous group should never be able to take a basic right from a smaller set of people.
By condemning same-sex couples to relationships that are less special than opposite-sex ones, the people of California have made friends of mine wonder if their neighbors think they should not be able to marry their partners.
We have come a long way in this country, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights Movement, to having the nation’s first black president. Gay rights are the next frontier of civil rights, and it is a travesty that the great state of California is not leading the way.
Ben Margines is a junior in Saybrook College.