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Same-Sex Marriage: "A Basic Civil Right"

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Last Wednesday, as the New York State Senate voted down a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New York, they were, in essence, voting to require discrimination in the State of New York. That they did it, in part, with the guiding hand of the Catholic Church--who called the defeat, incredibly, "a victory for the basic building block of our society"--only serves to outline both the violation of principle that constitutes religious meddling in U.S. law, and the wider question the measure raises: Why on earth is something as basic to our democracy as full civil rights coming up for a vote at all?

Much like the ham-fisted revision of California's constitution that took place earlier this year, in which some 52% of voters, via Proposition 8 (call it "Prop Hate") were able to gut the Golden State's constitutional protection of equal rights by disallowing legal marriage for its gay and lesbian citizens, the New York ruling throws the greater movement for civil rights in this country back by some forty years, certainly at least to 1967, when it was still illegal in most states for inter-racial couples to marry, because of so-called "anti-miscegenation" laws. This Wednesday's vote made a very similar kind of legal discrimination mandatory in the State of New York.

In their landmark 1967 ruling striking down long-held prohibitions on inter-racial marriage, the Supreme Court said plainly, "Marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival." What part of "basic civil rights of man" did the 38 New York Senators who voted against that measure not understand? Sure, those who oppose same-sex marriage--like the rank and file of the scandal-free and sexually-transparent Catholic Church--will tell you that somehow this is different, that this is about "protecting marriage." Perhaps then, it is heterosexual marriage that needs to be banned; until the divorce rate for first-time marriages drops from its current rate of around 50% (it's closer to 74% for third-timers) to closer to, say, 10%, why not put a ban on all opposite sex marriages; after all, we really do want to protect the institution of marriage, don't we?

The real and terrible irony to these latest rulings is that they have ever come up for a vote at all. Since when do Americans vote on stripping certain citizens of their basic civil rights, rights protected under the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and every single state Constitution, and reinforced by the Supreme Court as recently as 1967? The right to marry who we choose is clearly a basic freedom in our democracy, so much so that opposite sex couples are allowed to marry each other within five minutes of meeting one another, if the fancy strikes them. There is, in fact, no controversy here at all; we all agree on the fundamental premise behind these freedoms. As Staten Island senator Diane Savino noted after Wednesday's vote, "We in government don't determine the quality or worthiness of people's relationships. If we did, we would not issue three-quarters of the marriage licenses we do."

Is it is really acceptable to start putting human rights up for a vote, either on the Senate floor or the public voting booth? Civil rights simply are, guaranteed not only under law, but under the entire political philosophy that underpins our democracy. We don't vote on whether certain citizens should be denied the right to cast a ballot--the fact that we once had to vote on giving women and African-Americans the vote only illustrates the ways we should strive to make our founding documents--and the principles they espouse--stand up to the test of a living democracy. If anything, the purpose of amendments and clarifications to our laws and constitutions dealing with civil rights should always--as with women's suffrage, racial desegregation and inter-racial marriage rights--lead to a more emancipated citizenry and a more equitable bestowal of the freedoms the majority enjoy, not a clampdown on a vulnerable minority.

Proposition 8, much like the banning of same-sex marriage in Maine and now New York, is a huge movement backwards, a betrayal of the most basic tenets of human rights and the social contract, which any junior high kid with a dog-eared copy of Locke or Hobbes can quite easily explain to you. Denying gay Americans the right to marry is--it must be admitted--a kind of fascism, a form of oppression and control by which individuals blinded by ideology and fear push their repressive agenda onto our otherwise sound political system and demand that the system bend its principles to accommodate their own ignorance. With the right mixture of fear-mongering, religious saber-rattling and conservative funding, you could probably get a referendum passed in this country on denying people who watch public television the right to marry. Shall we bring that up for a vote?

As the political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote in her classic 1958 treatise on anti-miscegenation laws, Reflections on Little Rock, "Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs." Danke schon, Hannah. If our Constitution, and those of the States we live in, cannot provide true equal rights for all our citizens, including those who live in committed same-sex relationships, simply because enough ideologically rigid people choose to "bring it up for a vote," then what do our civil rights really mean?

Until same-sex marriage is a reality in this country, we will remain in the dark ages of civil rights, as repressed and provincial a nation as any of those we rightly condemn for their destructive integration of politics and archaic religious law, which is a far more "abominable" marriage than anything the gay community can possibly dish out.