Last Tuesday voters in the United States showed the world that democracy can, in fact, work. The American dream-- the ability to achieve greatness from meagre beginnings-- was shown to be alive and well. In two short months a man, whose candidacy 10 years ago would have been inconceivable and 50 years ago would have been forbidden from using "Whites Only" water fountains and washrooms, will take his seat in the Oval Office. Though the election of Barack Obama was truly an historic achievement, that same night was not without a bitter defeat for civil rights champions. In California, a state long thought to be a bastion of liberal philosophy, a constitutional revision was passed banning same-sex marriage.
Proposition 8, which proposed that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California," passed with 52 per cent support. The battle was waged largely between the gay and lesbian community and their supporters on the one side and religious institutions and their followers on the other. Though supposedly separated from the state, the church has been unwilling to refrain from exerting its influence in the political realm. Karl Rove's ability to mobilize the Religious Right in 2000 and 2004 was instrumental in putting George W. Bush in the White House. In California this election, the church's involvement in denying equal marriage rights to gays and lesbians was equally decisive.
The passing of Prop 8 reverses a California Supreme Court decision in May, which stated a ban on same sex marriage violated the equal protection clause of the state's constitution. Since that time, some 18,000 couples have tied the knot and the status of their marriages is now in question. Supporters of Prop 8 hail its passing as successfully upholding the traditional definition of marriage and argue the sanctity of the institution hung in the balance. Such an argument, however, is truly dumbfounding in an era where divorce rates are nearing 50 per cent. Heterosexual couples, to be sure, have done far more than gays to defile the sanctity of marriage.
Florida and Arizona also passed initiatives to ban same-sex marriage on election night and along with California now join the 43 other states which currently believe gays are unfit for the holy sanctity of marriage. Many of these states do allow for "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships," with some going as far as offering the same benefits and protections that legally married couples receive. Essentially, these states are arguing that gays and lesbians are separate but equal.
The sad irony is all too apparent on a night of historic occasion for the African-American minority. Separate but equal did little to placate the civil rights crowd and it will do little to placate the gay and lesbian community. Those arguing that a civil union with all the benefits of marriage will suffice are the same people who were or would have justified the segregation of schools or who would be confused by a black woman refusing to sit at the back of the bus. After all, sitting at the back of the bus will still get you where you need to go, so what's the harm? The harm is that separate but equal is not equal.
The evangelical and fundamentalist religious orders, by using the democratic institution of a referendum, have found a way to get their agenda around the decision of the courts. This is a dangerous precedent. Democracy in the modern sense is more than simply majority rules. It includes an inherent notion of rights and the majority should not be allowed to deny these rights to a minority. Paul Martin probably said it best while addressing the House of Commons on Bill C-38 (Canada's same-sex marriage bill) in 2005, "The rights of Canadians who belong to a minority group must always be protected by virtue of their status as citizens, regardless of their numbers. These rights must never be left vulnerable to the impulses of the majority."
On a night of such high hopes for progress, Prop 8 and its sibling propositions were a disappointing step backwards. But, if the civil rights movement has taught us anything, it's that progress is possible, if not inevitable. This struggle has entered a new round and already legal challenges to Prop 8 are mounting. The day will come when Americans, like Canadians, are free to marry whomever they please. And on that day an idea which should dictate the concept of marriage, but is all too often ignored by those too preoccupied with the sanctity of the institution, will reign supreme: love.