From an early age, I was taught that, in America, we do not put up our fundamental rights for a popular vote. In 1788, founding father John Adams warned against such a system because it would lead to a “tyranny of the majority” in which “the desires of the majority of the people are often for injustice and inhumanity against the minority.” Adams’ observation rings as true today as it did then. Just because an unfair idea is popular, doesn’t mean it should become law.
If Americans used the ballot box instead of the courts to decide our rights, public schools might still be segregated on the basis of race. States might have the power to censor the press. And criminal defendants might not have a guaranteed right to legal counsel.
Never mind that national polling consistently shows a majority of Americans supporting the freedom to marry for same-gender couples. Basic rights should never be subject to a popular vote. That’s what makes them rights. They are inalienable and irrevocable.
Failure to adhere to this basic American principle has created painful periods in our history, when the rights of minority groups yielded to the opinions, the fears or simply the whims of the majority. Thankfully, the major check we have on the self-interest of the majority is the United States Supreme Court, and less than two weeks ago they ruled in accordance with the basic constitutional principle that all citizens are equal before the law.
Because the Supreme Court struck down the core of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act,” the federal government no longer discriminates against married same-gender couples who live in states that recognize their relationships. This was the right thing to do, just as it was the right thing to do when the court struck down discriminatory laws that prohibited interracial marriages in 1967. Through various legal challenges currently making their way through the courts, the New Mexico State Supreme Court has the same opportunity to end relationship discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens in our state by affirming that our state Constitution protects the freedom to marry of same-gender couples.
Marriage matters for same-gender couples for similar reasons as for any other couple. Like Kelly and me, same-gender couples across our state want to make a public promise of love, commitment and responsibility before their family, friends, and community, and have that commitment recognized in the state where they live. Allowing same-gender couples the freedom to marry is a matter of basic respect and fairness. Most people wouldn’t want anyone telling them they couldn’t marry the person they love. When they think about it, they don’t want to tell anyone else they can’t marry either. It’s as simple as treating others with the same respect and dignity with which you want to be treated.
New Mexico has the opportunity to be a beacon for the true meaning of equality and justice by refusing to subject basic freedoms, particularly marriage, to a popular vote. Given our state’s proud tradition of tolerance and diversity, it would be shameful for us to make the rights of minorities vulnerable to the tyranny of the majority. There is no better time for New Mexico and New Mexicans to exemplify the meaning of freedom. I hope we will rise to the occasion.