Archive for the ‘minority rights’ Tag

Homosexuality: Voters versus Judges

On November 4, voters in California approved a measure that limits marriage to heterosexuals. This trumped a ruling of their state Supreme Court which granted homosexuals the right to marry. This sets up a confrontation between the voting booth and the judicial chamber. Who has the right to decide?

As I think about this situation I meditate on the 1963 decision by the United States Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the reading of the Bible and the saying of prayers in public schools. This decision was, in my judgment, the correct one. Even though Christians are the majority in this country, we live in a religion-neutral state, one that is commissioned to defend the rights of the minorities—especially religious minorities—when they are overwhelmed by the preferences of the majorities.

Baptists especially have been sensitive to this. For most of our 400 year history we have existed on the margins of the Christian world; for most places in the world this is still true. This experience has made us strong advocates of religious freedom and minority rights.

Only in the American South have Baptists risen to cultural power and social prominence. In that sense, the Baptist experience in the American South has been a test of our convictions. Are we still defending the rights of the minority? Or are we demanding our privileges as the majority?

Had the matter of prayer in public schools been put to a ballot vote in the United States in 1963 no one can doubt that the people would have rejected the Supreme Court and reaffirmed the role of prayer in the classroom. Certainly this would have been true for the South, among Baptists especially.

The same could be asserted for the year 1954 concerning the integration of public schools and also for the year 1973 when the issue was abortion. Other examples could be cited but these suffice to make my point: a popular vote is not the best interpreter of the constitution, not the best gauge of our rights and responsibilities as citizens, and not the best indicator of what is best for our nation. In fact, we elect representatives and install judges to think through these things rationally, morally, and legally, and do so in a way free of mass hysteria and popular prejudice.

Twenty years ago a popular vote would no doubt have barred homosexuals from equal access to housing and employment. There are many examples of this prejudice against demographic groups, including those with disabilities. Judges and legislators pulled us into a more just and open society, and most of us recognize the righteousness of these difficult transitions.

A ballot vote by the majority is never the safest way to guard the rights of the minority; that is true for religious minorities, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities. We are seeing this played out again on the issue of homosexuality in California. I for one will not be surprised if the Supreme Court in California—dominated by Republicans—takes a stand against the popular vote and reasserts what they see as a matter of equal treatment before the law.

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