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November 16, 2006
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
The ‘Let the People Vote’ Fallacy
Given that just for expressing my own opinions I am often accused of trying to silence people, I should probably avoid saying, “Oh, shut up” in response to those who are wringing their hands over the use of a procedural vote to defeat an anti-gay constitutional amendment. I certainly should avoid telling them bluntly what I think of them. Very well then, like Auntie Em I will be a Good Christian Woman and I won’t say it.
As the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention on Nov. 9 deliberated whether to amend the state constitution to deny the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage to same-sex couples, I followed developments from afar via Bay Windows’s ConCon blog. I was glad to see the serious lobbying at the State House complemented by people holding signs like “Go Home, You Look Haggard,” and the satirical “Keep marriage straight, white and pure!” Considering that gay marriage has been blamed for everything but the problems with the Big Dig, a generous portion of humor was needed just to clear the air.
There was plenty of noxious gas to clear. Some of the bad air came last summer from David Kravitz of the Blue Mass Group blog, who wrote that “if the amendment isn’t allowed to come up for a vote, it’s a good day for Kerry Healey, and a bad day for the democratic process.” Concerning the need for a vote, state Rep. David Linksy posted on Nov. 10, “I have voted on same-sex marriage sixteen times, consistently on the side of supporting same-sex marriage rights. My constituents know how I stand on the issue. My votes have been public and well-publicized and I have consistently made my views known to anyone who asked.” In fact, the Nov. 7 election was a bad day for Kerry Healey and a good day for the most pro-gay governor-elect in American history.
After the ConCon recessed, the unhappy outgoing governor promised to “explore any other alternatives that may exist to protect the constitutional rights of our citizens.” By that Mitt Romney apparently meant the right of the mob to attack a minority group whenever some demagogue chooses to provoke it.
Dan Kennedy of the Media Nation blog observes, “The customary procedures of the Legislature allow for members to call for a recess, and such a motion need only pass by a simple majority. ... Proponents of a constitutional amendment need to get 25 percent by following the rules, not by having some outside authority put its thumb on the scale by suspending the rules.”
On November 10, Andrew Sullivan blogged, “Yes, in some respects, civil rights should not be up for a vote. But many opponents of equality in marriage do not accept the premise that civil marriage is a civil right for gays. I think they’re wrong; but it’s an honest disagreement.” Pardon me, but it is hardly an honest disagreement when marriage opponents repeatedly conflate civil and religious law and act as if their religious dogma should be binding on the rest of the population. And what does it mean to say that civil rights should not be up for a vote in some respects? Is marriage a fundamental right or not? Are gay people equal citizens or not?
Sullivan wrote that opponents of marriage equality are “not wrong that equality in civil marriage is also a social change that should have democratic input. To prevent such input by parliamentary maneuvers taints the victory.” Who does he think has been denied input? What issue under the sun has had more public discussion?
This is a strange run-around. When we go to the courts we are told it is undemocratic because the legislature must decide. But when we went to the legislature in California, Governor Schwartzenegger said no, the courts must decide. And now in Massachusetts, having gone both to the courts and the legislature, we are told we are undemocratic because the people must decide directly. How many times are we expected to placidly watch the goalposts being moved?
Sullivan lamented, “I think we would have won the vote in 2008. I’m sorry we won’t now get the chance to prove it.” It is easy to say that he thinks we would have won such a plebiscite, but he doesn’t know.
Let me offer a few observations regarding the sacredness of the people’s right to decide: 1. We have a republic, not a government by town-hall meetings. 2. In recent elections in Massachusetts, opponents of marriage equality were the ones sent packing, not supporters. 3. Several other amendments have been dispatched by the same method in the past, and the Supreme Judicial Court has not ruled it improper. 4. Let our allies who have cold feet about this tell us which of their own basic rights they are prepared to ask their neighbors’ permission to exercise.
My hometown of Washington is not in the same position as Massachusetts. Our special constitutional relationship to Congress makes us ill-suited to lead the marriage fight. You in the Bay State are carrying the dreams of a lot of people. You may be joined by a few other states before too long, but you are the first, and it is hard being the first. Please know that many of your compatriots around the country are proud of the determination with which you have defended this precious toehold on civil marriage equality. Keep fighting any way you can within the law, and Godspeed.