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.
It reached this conclusion through a lot of philosophizing about "the right of same-sex couples to have their official family relationship accorded the same dignity, respect and stature as that accorded to other officially recognized family relationships." But the state constitution (like the federal one) does not traffic in mushy terms like "dignity" and "stature." When a court puts such heavy reliance on amorphous concepts, it telegraphs that it will not be tied down by the actual words of the state charter.
For further proof, consider that while the California constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of "sex, race, creed, color, or national or ethnic origin," it does (SET ITAL) not (END ITAL) forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The justices somehow found something in the document that the authors thought they omitted.
Prudence and caution, which are virtues in the executive and the legislative branch, are no sin in the judiciary, either. What those attributes dictated here is that the court give civil unions a fair interval to show their merits or flaws in practice, rather than rushing in to pronounce them inadequate.
The justices would have been wise to mark time while the people of California continued on their path toward full equality for gays. Instead, the court has practically exhorted them to stop the journey. Opponents of gay rights have mounted a drive to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November, which stands a good chance of passing.
The exercise may end up not only overturning the Supreme Court's presumptuous decree but hardening public attitudes against the whole idea for years to come. In time, Californians would probably be inclined to embrace gay marriage. But if you insist they go there today, don't be surprised if they refuse.