In the old story, a preacher gives an inspiring sermon, which he concludes by asking his congregants to stand up if they want to go to heaven. Everyone rises except one nervous-looking fellow. "Brother," asks the incredulous pastor, "don't you want to ascend to paradise when you die?" Says the holdout: "When I die? Sure! I thought you were getting up a group to go right now."
That's pretty much how I feel about the California Supreme Court's decision granting the right of same-sex couples to marry. The destination is a good one. I just wish the court weren't in such a hurry to get there.
In recent years, the country has been moving at a steady pace to affirm a once-unthinkable concept -- namely that as a matter of both individual rights and social good, gays should be free to make the same commitments as heterosexuals. According to a 2007 CBS News/New York Times poll, 60 percent of Americans now support allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions or marriage.
Radical changes don't happen overnight. But the speed of this one has been impressive. It's been only 22 years since the U.S. Supreme Court said states may criminalize homosexual conduct. It's been only 15 years since the Supreme Court of Hawaii shocked the country by ruling that gays might have a constitutional right to marry.
It's been only eight years since Vermont became the first state to admit same-sex couples to the rights and responsibilities of matrimony through civil unions. It's been only three years since California followed suit by letting gays enter into domestic partnerships.
But all of a sudden, the justices have discovered that their state constitution not only allows but requires that marriage include homosexual couples -- even though in 2000, 61 percent of the state's voters rejected that option.
The majority is not always right, and in that instance, I thought the majority was wrong. But democracy doesn't say the people will always be right. It merely says they have the right to decide most matters of public policy. Here, by contrast, the California Supreme Court says the citizenry has no right to define marriage the way it has been defined by custom and law for eons.
At stake was not whether gay couples may acquire the rights and duties of marriage in a state-sanctioned framework. As the court acknowledged, they can already do so under the domestic partnership law. But it's not enough for them to get the substance of marriage. The court said they must also get the same terminology.