Marriage Amendment: What it might mean to let the people decide

  • Article by: DAVID BOOTH
  • Updated: May 11, 2011 - 9:51 PM

It might mean the tyranny of the majority.

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When state Sen. Warren Limmer introduced a bill to place a marriage amendment on the 2012 ballot, he declared it was time to let the people decide.

If we do so, we might consider two concepts: the "establishment of religion" and the "tyranny of the majority."

Establishing religion means establishing the precepts of one religious group as civil law for everyone. Or it means lending the authority of the government to a particular religious view.

Americans instinctively resist this and, with good reason, the Bill of Rights forbids it.

In committee hearings about the marriage amendment, many witnesses cited Christian religious reasons to bar same-sex couples from enjoying the benefits of marriage.

One declared she had "come to pray for" the amendment. Another testified that same-sex marriages flout "the intent of Almighty God." A third cited the creation of Adam and Eve.

Surely these Christian views deserve great respect. But many Minnesotans, in the free exercise of their consciences, are not Christian.

And even among Christians the claim that the Bible forbids gay marriage is not a settled consensus. It is a highly particular, contested judgment.

Religious communities and religious scholars disagree about God's intentions for marriage. Many say the Bible forbids gay marriage.

Others say that the Bible does not condemn those committed same-sex relations that are the target of the proposed amendment. The few Biblical passages that seem to address sex acts between men are of debatable relevance to modern questions about legitimizing legal commitments between faithful partners of the same sex.

People of good conscience are divided about translations and historical contexts, and about the significance of changing scientific understandings of sexuality. No one expects this debate to end soon.

So voters should notice that if this amendment were adopted it would make one disputed religious view the fundamental law of our state. Given the historical importance to Americans of disentangling religious faith and civil laws, citizens should think twice before enshrining one faction's views in our Constitution.

We should also think twice about putting a question about basic rights to a vote of the majority -- risking what John Stuart Mill called the tyranny of the majority. Ours is a nation of principles as well as a democratic nation.

No principle is dearer to us than the belief that people have the "unalienable" right to the pursuit of happiness. Surely the right to make a life with the person you choose is basic to the pursuit of happiness.

Heterosexual persons take that right for granted, as they take for granted the numerous benefits the state confers on them when they make promises of lifelong commitment and fidelity.

But if the state is going to confer advantages on some people's loving commitments, it must not withhold those advantages from others.

Obviously, not every "pursuit of happiness" can be recognized. Where there is harm or threat of harm to others, an individual's liberty may be curtailed. So far, no one has shown any threat of harm from recognizing the legal status of gay marriages.

Every purported harm turns out to be personal aversion, or offence to some people's religious beliefs. And aversion is no grounds for depriving your neighbors of equal treatment under law.

The amendment offers a distinctly unhappy prospect -- the majority sitting in lordly judgment over whether a minority possess those same rights the majority holds dear.

There have been other moments in our history when a dominant group saw fit to deprive others of their rights. Women's rights and civil rights were long delayed by the majority vote of men who did not want to recognize them.

The vote in 2012, if it comes, won't be the first time a majority has sought to deprive a minority of rights the majority enjoys, but every previous instance has been judged harshly in the light of history.

David Booth is an associate professor of religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

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