Are your rights a popularity contest?

Zach Wiita

Show of hands: How many of you knew that the California Supreme Court would be hearing arguments today about whether Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that altered the California State Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, is legally valid? This case hasn’t gotten a lot of mainstream media attention since last fall, but that’s a shame. The legality of Proposition 8 has the potential to directly impact the basic rights of every American.

In mid-2008, the California Supreme Court determined that same-sex marriage was legal and protected under the state constitution’s guarantees of equality under the law. Soon after, thousands of Californian couples got married as a result of this new ruling.

Unfortunately, many who oppose same-sex marriage quickly mobilized and set out to forcibly break the marriages of their fellow citizens. This led to Proposition 8, which passed in November.

What’s the legal challenge to Proposition 8? The argument goes that such a fundamental change is actually a constitutional revision, which by California law can only be placed on the ballot with a vote of two-thirds of the state legislature. Further arguments contend that it violates the separation of powers by preventing the judiciary from protecting a minority group.

That may sound a bit technical, but the issues at stake here are not. They are immediate and deeply personal. If these challenges to Proposition 8 fail, all Americans are facing a fundamental threat to their liberty. You may not like the idea of homosexuality or same-sex civil marriages, but you should support the Proposition 8 opponents if you care about your own freedom. Why’s that?

Because if Proposition 8 stands, it means that no one’s rights are safe. If 50 plus one percent of the population can vote to strip away the constitutional rights of one group (LGBT Americans), they can do it to any group – any group at all.

Are you a member of a religious organization? Watch out. If 51 percent of your state doesn’t like your beliefs, they could vote to repeal your right to freedom of religion. Are you a member of a trade union? Beware. A vote of 51 percent could take away your right to organize. Are you a member of a minority political party? You should be careful – 51 percent of your state could vote to ban your party. Do you value your right to own property? Fifty-one percent of your neighbors could vote to steal it away.

Do you think that President Obama’s stimulus package was a horrible idea? Do you want to express a disagreement with tax law? Do you like to listen to Rush Limbaugh or Chris Matthews? Do you think you ought to have the right to engage in consensual sex with another adult? With your spouse? Do you think you have the right to be treated as an equal by citizens of another race? Do you think you have the right to own firearms? Do you think you ought to have the right to marry a member of the opposite sex whom you love?

If Prop. 8 stands and establishes a legal precedent, all of that is threatened. If Prop. 8 stands, 51 percent of your fellow citizens can hold a ballot initiative and take away any right they so choose.

I’m sure you’re reading this and thinking it’s absurd. After all, the U.S. Constitution would protect those rights even if the state constitutions did not. That’s certainly one view – but, there again, the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equality under the law hasn’t stopped the federal government from passing the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (excluding same-sex marriage under federal statute), from banning LGBT Americans from serving in the military, or from refusing to acknowledge for federal purposes the validity of legal same-sex marriages performed in the United States.

Nor has the U.S. Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause prevented numerous states from refusing to recognize as valid same-sex marriages performed in states such as Massachusetts. Clearly the federal constitution is not being honored at this time because gay marriage is widely opposed – so why would the Constitution be honored in a hypothetical future where the public disapproves of your other fundamental basic rights?

If Proposition 8 stands, your freedom and your rights are just a popularity contest.

Zach Wiita is a senior political science and theater studies major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].