Friday, October 10, 2008

Equality Comes to Connecticut

Today I'm simultaneously thrilled for Connecticutters and uneasy for the rest of us in marriage-equality battleground states.
The state Supreme Court's 4-3 decision Friday that same-sex couples have the right to marry swept through the state with the force of a cultural tidal wave.

While lead plaintiff Beth Kerrigan and her partner -- soon to be wife -- embraced and sobbed after learning of the ruling, opponents vowed to pursue a long and complicated route to change the constitution to ban gay marriage.

And there you have it. In a nutshell, citing the equal protection clause, the court accepted the argument that civil unions--already approved in Connecticut--are a poor stand-in for the full legal rights and societal recognition the magic word "marriage" confers. Predictably, the opposition is clamoring for a vote on convening a constitutional convention to thwart the activists in the judiciary and restore the right of the majority to feel better about themselves on the backs of a minority to the people, where it belongs. Because questions of equal civil protections are always best left to a popularity contest.

The decision leaves me uneasy coming this close to November 4 because the shriekers in California, Florida, and Arizona are going to point to Connecticut and say see, we told you we need a constitutional amendment before some goddamn liberal judge comes along and says our straights-only law is unconstitutional! This raises the question, at least for me, of what would happen if Connecticut voters should go ahead and pass a neener neener amendment, since the logic laid out by the majority is both simple and seemingly ironclad:

"Interpreting our state constitutional provisions in accordance with firmly established equal protection principles leads inevitably to the conclusion that gay persons are entitled to marry the otherwise qualified same sex partner of their choice," the majority wrote. "To decide otherwise would require us to apply one set of constitutional principles to gay persons and another to all others."

Can an amendment approved by the voters subsequently be voided if it contains provisions that violate the existing constitution as interpreted in a decision that's directly relevant? An amendment limiting voting rights to landholding white males would clearly not pass muster even if it passed with 100% of the vote, and since the Kerrigan decision was made on the strength of the existing equal protection clause in Connecticut's constitution, how can an amendment designed to contradict that ruling not run afoul of the same clause in the same way?

The question is likely moot in Arizona, unfortunately, since the state Supreme Court in 2004 refused to review an appeal of a lower court decision that found the current no-queer-marriage statute to be constitutional. Of course, not getting the answer you want has never been a deterrent to the other side; Arizona voters already rejected a constitutional amendment in 2006, but its backers resurrected it this year in a stripped-down form they hope will appeal to more people since it only targets gays rather than stripping contract rights from hetero couples who choose to live together without marrying.

And now they have a great big East Coast boogeyman to wave menacingly at anyone who might still be on the fence. I'm happy for Connecticut. I hope it doesn't hurt us. Not that we weren't dead in the water already, but still.

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