Dan Mac Alpine: Guarantees against the tyranny of the majority

Dan Mac Alpine

A federal judge overturns a ban on same-sex marriage — California’s Proposition 8 — and suddenly we’re all atwitter debating the “sanctity of the ballot box.”

That’s the way Jim Braude -- who I hope is a fill-in host -- put it on NECN’s “Broadside” show the evening of the ruling.

The middle-aged, balding, jowly white man on the screen ranted on uninterrupted for several minutes about how U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker essentially voided an election in a democracy.

But we aren’t a democracy. We are a republic. The ballot box isn’t the only rule of law in the land. We have representative government. Our legislative, executive and judicial branches of government split power and balance against one another. They also protect against a tyranny of the majority over the minority.

We are entitled to equal treatment under the law, to the same rights and liberties, whether we are in the minority or in the majority.

This means we can’t, say, pass a law forbidding angry, middle-aged, balding, jowly white men from ranting on TV as a fill-in hosts on an all-news station.

“This is the worst kind of discrimination. It’s against us,” to quote Red Green of the New Hampshire Public Television show “Red Green.”

A majority can’t deny basic rights and equal treatment under the law to the minority.

So, the debate then moves to the question of whether marriage is a right that comes under the umbrella of equal treatment under the law.

Taken purely as a religious sacrament, marriage doesn’t qualify. Courts, the ballot box, state legislatures, the U.S. Congress can’t force religions to recognize marriages that violate their beliefs. The Catholic Church, for example, doesn’t recognize most marriages if one or the other partner has been divorced. That is the church’s right.

However, marriage isn’t purely a religious sacrament. We have heaped upon it many privileges and advantages not available to single folks. There are tax advantages. Property inheritance advantages in the event one partner or the other dies. Rights to visit a partner in the hospital. Rights to oversee a partner’s care.

It is in this combination of marriage as religious sacrament and business partnership where we stumble as a society on this issue.

I can sympathize with those who fervently believe homosexuality to be a sin and marriage of same-sex couples an assault on a holy sacrament.

They believe this as fervently as I believe God loves us all. That we need to reflect that love in the way we treat one another as best we can. That there is enough hate in the world. That we need to celebrate and support love among one another.

But that is religion.

I see same-sex marriage as primarily a civil-rights issue.

I’ve written this before and I’ll probably write it again. I would prefer a split of the civil and legal aspects of marriage from marriage as a holy sacrament. Have all couples receive a legal union license at their town or city halls, via a simple, witnessed form. This would grant all the tax and legal privileges and responsibilities we now grant through marriage.

And then let the various denominations marry whatever adult, consenting couples they will.

Failing this church-state split, we can’t enshrine denying legal rights, advantages and privileges to a segment of the population, be they in the minority or majority. It doesn’t matter where that discrimination originates — even at the ballot box.

If we allow that, what’s next? Denying skinny, middle-aged, white guys a column in the local paper?

Dan Mac Alpine lives in Ipswich, Mass., and is senior editor of the Ipswich Chronicle.