Thursday, November 9, 2006
Constitutional convention ends; no gay marriage vote.
As expected, the Massachusetts constitutional convention recessed this evening without voting on a petition from approximately 170,000 citizens to place a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the 2008 ballot. If the legislature doesn't vote on the initiative by the last day of its current session, next January 2, the petition is dead and the anti-gay marriage coalition would have to start all over again. If their turnout today is any indication, their enthusiasm for what would be a three-year uphill battle against the growing acceptance of gay marriage in Massachusetts is clearly waning.
Opponents of same-sex civil marriage argue that "the people," not the courts, should decide on significant changes to the law and to social convention. I am not entirely unsympathetic to this view, although I happen to believe that marriage is good for gay and straight couples alike as well as for their larger community. A wise court finds a way to enlist legislative support for expansions of constitutional liberties — as the Supreme Courts of Vermont and New Jersey have done concerning the rights of same-sex couples. But the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts went around the legislature in changing marriage law and left legislators with no choice but to comply or amend the Constitution (which they are naturally reluctant to do), leaving us caught in an ongoing tug-of-war between populist demagogues on the right and high-minded procedural maneuvering on the left.
Supporters of the Commonwealth's unique court-mandated marriage equality argue that the constitutional rights of a minority should never be put to a popular vote. That's a strong line, too. But it's not an argument that strikes most Americans as persuasive when it comes to gay marriage — so the fact that New Jersey's Supreme Court followed Vermont's lead is a good sign for future progress for same-sex couples. Future advances in marriage equality will come more gradually than in Massachusetts, through extending civil marriage rights in the form of "civil unions." For a while, anyway. Eventually, as people realize that legally binding unions really are extremely similar to "marriage" — and as people realize that they are attending "weddings" and considering same-sex couples they know as "married" — the need for a parallel legal term will fall away. But I don't see a way to skip the social transformation that still needs to take place before most Americans are really ready to accept it.
The Massachusetts legislature did the right thing by not putting the rights of a minority population up for a popular vote, but hopefully other state legislatures will not be put in the bind they've been in. Supporters of gay marriage in other states are left with the important but difficult work of building popular acceptance as a foundation for legal and constitutional protections; without that, courts can't protect people from a democratic backlash.
Here, by the way, are my pictures from today's competing rallies outside the Massachusetts State House.
Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 9 November 2006 at 8:54 PM