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GUEST COLUMN: Should the majority always rule?

Soon, a bill will come to the floor of the Minnesota State Legislature that, if passed, will place before our good-natured and common sense citizenry a question as to the state’s definition of marriage. The question before us now is not whether marriage is or ought to be defined as a sacred union between one man and one woman, or even what our own personal feelings are on the matter. Certainly, many — if not most — in our community and state share a religious or social definition of traditional marriage. But at stake are not our own personal feelings about marriage or what the majority opinion of marriage might be. Rather, what is at stake is the state’s official opinion on which citizens may or may not partake in the civil and social institution of marriage and, specifically, whether that majority opinion should provide the final say on the matter.

Being a straight man, it is hard for me to think of the ever-present opportunity I have to propose marriage to a woman as any sort of right. As a tradition of our and nearly every other society, the act of being married is rarely if ever perceived or described as a right. But when I consider how I would feel in the practically unimaginable situation wherein my opportunity to marry were taken away by the government, I hardly believe my first sentence of protest would be “No, this is my privilege.” Surely, just as if the government were to come for my guns, I would assert that this is my right.

History has taught us that the majority opinion is not always the best means to protect minority rights. In 1954, the Supreme Court rejected the notion that separate could ever mean equal. The good-natured folks in Topeka, Kan., were not asked to give a show of hands in this matter. When, a decade later, a culture of bigotry and inequality persisted, an act of Congress further asserted equal rights. Again, the common sense voters of Birmingham, Alabama were not consulted — every Southern Democratic Senator voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1967, 16 states had laws on the books banning marriage between heterosexual couples of different races until these laws were overturned by a unanimous Supreme Court decision. This decision came despite a Gallup poll that found that 72 percent of Americans opposed interracial marriage and nearly half felt interracial marriage was an offense that should be punishable by a fine or jail time.  

The 1967 decision that overturned miscegenation laws asserted that a citizen’s right to marry did not cease to exist because he or she fell in love with a member of another race. Regardless of one’s view as to the extent to which personal choice informs sexual orientation, to put homosexual participation in marriage rights to a vote would be to subject all minority rights to majority approval. If a citizen’s rights are conditional upon exercising those rights in accordance with the majority opinion, then no right that is exercised by a minority of citizens lies beyond the reach of the majority to take away by a vote. According to a recent poll conducted by the Washington Post, 41.7 percent of Minnesotans own at least one gun. Gun ownership is just as much a lifestyle choice as it is a right, and it is the choice of a minority of Minnesotans to exercise their right to own a gun. However unlikely or difficult to imagine the scenario might be, left to a simple majority vote of non-gun owners versus gun owners, even gun rights could be taken away. 

Mob rule does not cease to be mob rule simply because one agrees with the opinion of the mob. As good-natured and common sensed as we Minnesota voters may be, minority rights are not a matter of public opinion. We entrust the obligation of stating and safeguarding minority rights to the representatives and judges we elect. I pray our elected officials do not shrink from their duty out of electoral cowardice or a desire for political gain.

TAYLOR STEVENSON was a DFL candidate for the Senate District 12 seat in 2010 and is a member of the Crow Wing County Human Rights Commission. His column was written to reflect his personal opinion and not that of the commission.