As important as the presidential election is this year, that’s not the only race that will have my attention on Tuesday. California’s Proposition 8 is perhaps as pivotal a civil rights decision as we have seen in many years.
This past May, the California Supreme Court ruled that denying gays and lesbians the right to marry violated the state constitution. Almost immediately, the very people whom this would least effect jumped into high gear to introduce a ballot initiative to overturn that decision. The religious right and, most specifically, the Mormon Church has devoted millions of dollars and enlisted thousands of people to this cause.
With the Supreme Court’s decision this past May, California became the second state in the country to legalize marriage for gays and lesbians (Massachusetts having been the first). Since then, Connecticutt has made a similar decision. This early and intense challenge to California’s law is seen by many legal analysts as a canary in the mine for the way this issue may play out in other states over the coming years.
The arguments for gay marriage are legion and are supported by law and history. The arguments against gay marriage essentially boil down to one thing – religious belief. But, religion has nothing to do with it.
Since about the time that Henry VIII got irked at the Pope for denying him a divorce and started his own church, marriage has been a civil issue in most of the western world. In this country, the government has always been in charge of marriage, which is in truth a legal contract. This is why every church wedding I’ve ever attended included the words, “by the power vested in me by the state of (fill in the blank).” The first marriage of two European settlers on the North American continent was performed by William Bradford acting on the authority of his position as Governor. The early Puritans actually believed that the English custom of marriage by clergy was unscriptural. Now, I don’t have any quarrel with big church weddings. In fact, I believe it is only fitting that two people would include their spirituality in what will likely be one of the biggest days of their lives. But the simple fact is, the church doesn’t own marriage.
What is immensely distubing to me is that people who are commanded to love their neighbor as themselves are so angrily determined to suppress equal rights for an estimated 10% of the population. They have nothing to lose, and gay people have everything to gain, so the only motivation they could possibly have is religious bigotry. When pressed into a corner, they sometimes offer the olive branch of “civil unions,” a legal contract between two people who choose to build a life together (do I need to point out that is EXACTLY what marriage is?). Haven’t we already learned this lesson? In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that segregation was okay as long as facilities were “separate but equal.” Brown v. The Board of Education overturned that ruling in 1954 when it was determined that separate was inherently not equal. The most interesting aspect of the civil unions debate is that it implies the opponent would concede the rights as long as they still owned the word. I could almost say, “Fine, just give me the rights, and I’ll use the word anyway.” Nobody owns a word, you dip-wads. But separate is not equal. Different is not the same.
The most difficult challenge in this issue is getting non-gay people to care. I know that those who aren’t gay don’t feel the sting like we do, just as white people will never truly understand the African-American experience. But, gays and lesbians across this nation, including me and my wife, are passionate about this because it is vital for us. Only marriage can give me all the tools I need to protect my family. This may seem like an off-the-radar social issue to many Americans, but to me it is my family’s finances, healthcare, inheritance issues, relationships, property rights, and basic definition that is at stake. For me, it is the right to say, “This is my family.” That, my friends, is not a small thing. And just as white people marched with Dr. King, it will take equality-minded straight people to help win this fight.
On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Californians will walk into a voting booth and vote on something that has no effect on them, but the most essential effect on many others. They will vote yes on Proposition 8. They are the playground bullies who won’t share the swingset. No, that’s too kind. They are the segregationists of the 21st Century. My deep hope is that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, plus 1 vote no on this proposition of suppression and inequality. But it will take all of those who feel the full effect of this bigotry . . . plus an army of others who simply care enough to care.