Yesterday, I received an email inviting me to an event co-hosted by Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and Howard County Register of Wills Byron Macfarlane. The event is “in support of marriage equality in Maryland,” specifically benefiting the umbrella group Marylanders for Marriage Equality.
As Joe Biden would say, this is a big [expletive] deal.
It’s perhaps not as a big a deal as it would have been a month ago, before President Obama openly declared his support for same-sex marriage. But, still, politicians who have (purportedly) aspiration for higher office publically fundraising in support of same-sex marriage signals a shift in mind-set. (And if Ulman doesn’t run for governor, I would expect a lot of people to be asking for their money back.)
The United States has seen 32 public votes on same-sex marriage, in various forms and formats, and 32 times the public has decided to prohibit it. In May, North Carolinians recently voted to ban same-sex marriages. (Related aside: did you know Dick Cheney lobbied in support of the Maryland bill?)
This fall, the matter comes before the voters of Maryland. Ulman’s support (to say nothing of Obama’s) ends the dissimulation of professional politicians on the subject of same-sex marriage. As public support swings in favor, even the most risk-adverse population (those held in thrall to the ballot box) are ready to see justice done.
Even before getting into the crux of the matter, it is a bit odd that social justice for a minority group is being put to a popular vote.
In Federalist 10, James Madison (writing as “Publius”) warned against the potential for ochlocracy in a democracy. “When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government…enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.”
Madison felt that the distance provided by “the delegation of the government…to a small number of citizens elected by the rest” provided a bulwark against a popularly supported injustice. In other words, the passing of the Civil Marriage Protection Act by an elected legislature, whether or not 50 percent plus one of the population agreed, meant the system worked exactly as it was designed to do.
Of course, Maryland’s referendum process has its roots in the Progressive reforms that took hold at the turn of the last century, when the excesses of the Gilded Age and the power of party bosses were broken by new tools like primaries and direct elections. Citzens needed, and deserved, more power than given to them by the Founders. (Irony in action: as we face a new Gilded Age, the mechanisms put in place to break the last one are now used as tools of oppression.)
While the underlying righteousness of the referendum effort is now a moot point in the same-sex marriage debate (we’re voting regardless), I think it’s still an important point to consider before ballots are cast. Madison wrote that” …the majority, having [a] coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.” That local situation? Today, by referendum, it is us.
To work as designed and intended, the referendum process is wholly dependent on an educated electorate, an electorate that can dispassionately exam an issue and, hopefully, act for the benefit of society over the individual. To say that personal belief, be it religious or otherwise, is reason enough to deny justice to any minority population is anathema to the principles of an open and fair society, to say nothing of what we expect of ourselves as Americans.
And, yes, civil marriage is a right. Income tax is generally lower for married couples. (You might not agree with that policy, but that’s reason to deny the opportunity to others.) We, as a society, have imparted a wide range of benefits to civil marriage that go generally go unquestioned by straight couples (to say nothing of the tax benefit of having children). You can disagree with a lifestyle; that doesn’t mean it will cease to exist. It will remain, and while perhaps you will not honor it, you should not consign its population to second-class status.
That’s our duty as Americans, given the right to decide how we, as a society, will treat each other. To defend justice for our neighbors, whether we necessarily agree with them or not. The ability to vote on the laws that govern us all, true “demos” democracy, means we must be able to think beyond ourselves. I’m glad to see County Executive Ken Ulman do so. I hope a plurality of Marylanders will follow suit.