EVERY TIME THE QUESTION of same-sex marriage is put before the public, the public emphatically says no. In 13 states this year -- in Missouri on Aug. 3, Louisiana on Sept. 18, and Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Utah, and Oregon on Nov. 2 -- voters were faced with proposed constitutional amendments limiting marriage to one man and one woman. In all 13 the amendments were approved, by majorities ranging from 57 percent (Oregon) to 86 percent (Mississippi).
2004 was no anomaly. In 2002, voters in Nevada approved a similar constitutional amendment. So did voters in Nebraska in 2000, and in Alaska and Hawaii in 1998. Each time, the margin of victory was huge. Same-sex marriage has also been tested at the polls in California. In March 2000, 4.6 million Californians -- 61.5 percent -- approved Proposition 22, a statute defining marriage as an opposite-sex institution.
Meanwhile, dozens of state legislatures have enacted defense-of-marriage acts, many modeled on the law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996. In all, 42 states and the federal government have confirmed the timeless definition of marriage in law, a powerful democratic response to what is manifestly the will of the American people.
America is not divided on this issue. The national consensus on the meaning of marriage is strong and broad, uniting whites with blacks, the Bible Belt with the coasts, the working class with the well-to-do. Same-sex marriage advocates went 0-for-13 this year not because they were thwarted by intolerant extremists but because they are demanding something wildly out of step with American values and history. Gay and lesbian activists should be able to acknowledge the legitimacy of the nation's deep opposition to homosexual marriages. And they should be able to respect the outcome of the democratic process, even if they don't like it.
In many cases, unfortunately, that isn't their response. Too often they demonize those who reject same-sex marriage as haters and homophobes. Ballot measures that are purely defensive -- efforts to protect the common understanding of marriage from high-handed judges or mayors bent on forcing the issue -- they condemn as "writing bigotry into the constitution." And far from agreeing that this is a thorny issue that should be resolved democratically, they insist that what the people think shouldn't matter at all.
"Fundamental human rights should never be put up for a popular vote," says Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "We'll win some states and we'll lose some states, but eventually the Supreme Court is going to look at the Bill of Rights and isn't going to give a damn what's in any of these state constitutions."
Whether Foreman is right about the Supreme Court remains to be seen. But as that famous saloonkeeper, Mr. Dooley, pointed out, even the Supreme Court follows the election returns. The justices may not share Foreman's antipathy to democracy or his eagerness to ride roughshod over representative government. Particularly when the president has just won re-election, and Republican control of Congress has just been strengthened, thanks in part to a backlash by voters deeply concerned about marriage and moral values.
The gay political leadership does itself no good when it pretends that a campaign to shake marriage to its core is a quest for "fundamental human rights." Men no more have a fundamental human right to marry other men than fathers have to marry their daughters, and no one ought to be called a bigot for saying so. When tens of millions of Americans, in state after state, vote against remaking society's core institution, their views are entitled to a modicum of respect.
After all, a large and growing majority of Americans treats same-sex relationships with respect. Gay and lesbian couples are widely accepted as part of the social landscape, they enjoy many legal rights and privileges, and no one challenges their freedom of private conduct. But civic equality goes only so far, and most Americans draw the line at saying that sex should be irrelevant to marriage, the core function of which is to unite the sexes. That is hardly an outlandish position. What is outlandish is for the head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to declare that courts shouldn't "give a damn" about deeply rooted American values.
Speaking at Boston's Ford Hall Forum one day after the election, the nation's best known gay politician urged his allies on the left to stop showing such contempt to social moderates and conservatives.
"There is something to be said for cultural respect," US Representative Barney Frank remarked. "Showing a bit of respect for cultural values with which you disagree is not a bad thing. Don't call people bigots and fools just because you disagree with them."
That is sensible advice from experienced lawmaker -- one whose party and cause just took a big hit at the polls. If same-sex marriage activists keep treating mainstream Americans with disdain, the next political backlash might be even worse.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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