No Right to a Civil Rite

2 Jun 2009

The news that California's Supreme Court has upheld the validity of Proposition 8, ending marriage equality in the state, was shocking even as it was expected. The state that proudly declares "the future starts here," took a backward step while reinforcing the truisms that minority rights should never be subject to a popular vote - and that judges should not be elected.

California voters passed Prop. 8 to overturn an earlier ruling by California's highest court that the failure to allow same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

More than 18,000 California same-sex couples who married between the court's ruling last May and its ruling this May will remain, surely heightening the denial of equal protection for those who wish to follow them.

While I personally support marriage equality, the NAACP, whose board I chair, takes no position on same-sex marriage. The NAACP nevertheless opposed Prop. 8 vigorously and filed a friend of the court brief to overturn it.

The NAACP, always opposed to any effort to marginalize minorities and deny them rights others enjoy, believed Prop. 8 seriously threatened the equal protection that all citizens should enjoy. Regrettably, we now have been proved correct.

As the dissenting California justice said: "[The decision] places at risk the state constitutional rights of all disfavored minorities. It weakens our state Constitution as a bulwark of fundamental rights for minorities protected from the will of the majority."

The majority justices in the 6-1 decision were quick to separate themselves from the anti-marriage equality proposition, saying they were "setting aside our own personal beliefs and values." That is small comfort to those denied equality.

What if the U.S. Supreme Court justices had said that in Brown vs. Board of Education and then upheld "separate but equal" on the ground that a majority of people supported it?

Growing national sentiment favors same-sex marriage, now legal in Iowa, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The City Council in the District of Columbia, where I live, recently voted 11-1 to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. The sole council member to vote no threatened "a civil war" unless equality was denied to gay and lesbian citizens.

Like the justices in California, opponents of marriage equality are facing a rising tide of tolerance. Poll results tell us that younger Americans aren't as bigoted as their elders, and as their numbers grow, so does acceptance.

My own marriage feels in no way threatened by gay marriage - any more than its interracial nature threatened those who made my union criminal until 1966. My marriage survived the interracial same-sex marriage I attended last weekend. The couple had legally married in Connecticut, but their hometown Virginia ceremony was witnessed by 200 friends and family, most of them Christians, including the grandfather of one partner who conducted it. It was a rebuke to those who base their opposition to marriage equality on the Bible. Let's all pray that those who want to block access to the church sanctuary won't continue to block access to city hall.

The California court has given new meaning to the song's line "California here I come, right back where I started from." California law is back where it started, to the detriment of us all.

What is at issue is the arbitrary denial of a civil rite to some - if that's not a denial of civil rights, I don't know what is.

Julian Bond is a distinguished professor at American University and a professor in the History Department at the University of Virginia. He has been board chairman of the NAACP since 1998.

Article taken from the San Francisco Chronicle