I have learned as both a pastor and as a member belonging to several minority groups- African-American, women and lesbian- that a popular opinion on an issue does not always reflect the right choice. Too often, the right choice and the moral high ground on an issue derive from a small struggling group trying both to be seen and heard among the cacophony of dissenting voices and opposing votes. Moreover, it is with this group we see democracy's tenacity working, where those relegated to the fringes of society can begin to sample what those in society take for granted as their inalienable right.
Last week we saw democracy work. In a 4-to-3 decision, California Supreme Court ruled that a "separate and unequal" system of domestic partnership for same-sex couples is not only blatantly discriminatory but it is also unconstitutional.
"In contrast to earlier times, our state now recognizes that an individual's capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual's sexual orientation, and, more generally, that an individual's sexual orientation -- like a person's race or gender -- does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights," the Court wrote.
However, the knot is not completely tied for California's same-sex couples.
A conservative backlash in California has already begun with opponents gathering signatures to place on the November ballot, defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
California will not be alone it is efforts. Florida will vote on a constitutional amendment in November, and, Arizona, presidential hopeful John McCain's state, is considering doing the same. Twenty-seven states already have constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
When society narrowly defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman, it is not only policing the sexual behaviors of lesbian and gay people, but society is also policing the sexual behaviors of heterosexuals. Handcuffing marriage to a heterosexual paradigm merely chokes its possibility of ever flourishing and lasting, especially as we are coming to understand the fluidity of not only gender and sexual identities but also of the constant changing configuration of family units.
In the Court's need to deal fairly with same-sex couples given the widespread public sentiment against same-sex marriage did it ignore the will of the people?
The California Court's decision can be read two ways.
The Court upheld the democratic process by offering same- sex couples marriage and not "marriage -lite" with civil unions. Alternatively, the Court overstepped its authority, imposing its will on an issue the country, let alone the state of California, is not ready for.
With purportedly more than 1.2 million signatures gathered to place on the November ballot, more than twice the requisite number needed to initiate the process of passing a constitutional amendment to put the question on the 2008 election ballot, is the democratic process thwarted?
To put lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people's equal rights on the ballot for a popular vote is both wrong-hearted and wrong-headed. If I waited for slaveholders to free my ancestors predicated on a ballot vote we all wouldn't be living in the America we know today.
The proponents of the ballot question are a well financed, and well-organized voting constituency. As a tyrannical majority, they represent themselves as a formidable might that have power and money, and not as a group of people advocating a moral right. Marriage for them is defined solely as between a man and a woman, and any variation of their gender prescription within this institution is vehemently beaten down. They use the ballot not to promote justice but instead to promulgate their bigoted agenda, and democracy works only when their side wins.
I have learned, however, that democracy is an ongoing process where people are part of a participatory government working to dismantle all existing discriminatory laws that truncate their full participation in society. The work of democracy along this troubling human timeline is rooted in justice and social change allowing us to see those faces and to hear those voices in a society of the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the dispossessed.
Democracy can only begin to work when those relegated to the fringes of society can begin to sample what those in society take for granted as their inalienable right. And sometimes for that to happen people, like our Massachusetts lawmakers and now California's, have to step in to make the democratic process work for us all.
While LGBTQ families in California have not seen the last in this ballot battle, they are getting, at least for now, a sample of what we LGBTQ families in Massachusetts can take for granted -democracy.