The Sky Isn't Falling

Thursday, July 5, 2007

WHEN THE high court of Massachusetts ruled in 2003 that the commonwealth's constitution gave same-sex couples the right to marry, detractors railed against "activist judges" who were "imposing" their will on the people. Only the people, through their elected representatives, should decide something so fundamental, they said. Thus began an effort to amend Massachusetts's constitution by referendum to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Four years and about 10,000 same-sex marriages later, here's what the people have said: never mind.

To get the referendum on the 2008 ballot, opponents of gay marriage needed only 50 of Massachusetts's 200 legislators to vote for the amendment during consecutive two-year sessions. The first vote at the end of the last session, in January, garnered the support of 62 lawmakers. But the second vote last month attracted only 45. Now the earliest the amendment could hit the ballot is 2012. By then, the response from the people very well might be "What's the big deal?"

Opponents of same-sex unions felt democracy was under attack by the courts, with judges dictating what people could and couldn't accept. Meanwhile, supporters argued that the rights of a minority should not be put to a vote. The ultimate defeat of the referendum was democracy catching up with the court.

Despite dire predictions, the institution of marriage didn't crumble under the weight of homosexuals seeking the rights and responsibility that come with it. The sky didn't fall in Massachusetts. Nor has it buckled in the District of Columbia and the five states that offer civil unions or domestic partnerships to gay couples. Washington state's domestic partnership law goes into effect next month. Oregon's domestic partnership law and New Hampshire's civil unions take effect in January 2008. Acceptance of gay marriage is by no means widespread. Marriage is restricted to one man and one woman by constitutional amendment in 26 states and by state law in 19 others. But the tide is slowly changing. Opinion polls show growing acceptance of gay rights.

At a commemoration last month of the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the landmark Supreme Court case that struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage, Mildred Loving joined many civil rights organizations when she threw her support behind gay marriage. "I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry," she said. And as hysteria gives way to real-life experience, more people will realize that the loving and committed relationships of homosexuals should be recognized.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company