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JEFF JACOBY

The people's voice on gay marriage

WHEN CALIFORNIA lawmakers narrowly passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage last month, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that he would veto it. Not because he opposes legal rights for gay and lesbian couples -- he doesn't -- but because he opposes treating California elections as meaningless. Five years ago, Californians went to the polls and approved Proposition 22, a ballot initiative confirming the traditional definition of marriage. Unless they change their minds or are overruled by the Supreme Court, Schwarzenegger said, their decision ought to be binding. As his spokesperson put it in a statement, ''We cannot have a system where the people vote and the Legislature derails that vote."

Needless to say, liberal supporters of gay marriage had a fit. ''The governor is disingenuously claiming that the Legislature has overturned the intent of voters," a Los Angeles Times editorial growled. ''Does he not believe in the American system of representative democracy?" A letter to the editor mocked a governor who ''runs and ducks for cover behind the courts and 'the people.' Who's the girlie man now?"

But it wasn't Schwarzenegger who was being disingenuous, and it would be no bad thing if more politicians showed comparable respect for laws passed at the polls. Proposition 22 -- which read, in its entirety, ''Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California" -- was ratified by a lopsided majority of California voters, winning more than 4.6 million votes and carrying 52 of the state's 58 counties. What could the people possibly have done to make their intent any clearer?

In an earlier era, liberalism and respect for the vote went hand in hand. Liberals fought to extend the franchise to women. They were leaders in the civil rights movement, raising their voices -- and sometimes laying down their lives -- for the right of Southern blacks to vote. A century ago, progressives championed the direct election of US senators, a movement that culminated in the adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913.

But today liberalism all too often displays a strong antidemocratic streak, and nowhere is it more blatant than on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Every time voters have been asked whether the fundamental definition of marriage -- the legal union of a man and woman -- should be radically redefined, they have given the same answer, and generally in a landslide. In the past five years, voters in 16 states have adopted constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage. (Statewide votes are pending in five more states.) Those who believe that gender should be irrelevant to marriage may be passionately convinced of the justice of their cause. But they have not managed to convince a majority of their fellow citizens.

Faced with such strong and consistent electoral opposition, same-sex marriage advocates ought to be reworking their arguments and finding better ways to make their case. They could be trying harder to understand the concerns and depth of feeling on the other side. Or they could decide to wait until public sentiment has shifted, and then go back to the voters with a new referendum.

Instead they seem to have decided that if they can't win democratically, winning undemocratically will suffice. And so we have seen same-sex marriage by judicial fiat, as in Massachusetts. We have seen same-sex marriage by executive decree, as in New Paltz, N.Y., San Francisco, and a few other cities where marriage licenses were issued to gay and lesbian couples by order of the mayor. And we have seen same-sex marriage by legislative snub, as with the California bill last month.

The marriage radicals are not coy about their willingness to brush democratic scruples aside. When 130,000 Massachusetts voters petitioned state lawmakers in 2002 for a constitutional amendment in defense of traditional marriage, the Legislature's liberal leadership refused to bring it to the floor. Though the state Constitution required an up-or-down vote before the measure could be sent to the voters, the Legislature simply adjourned, strangling the amendment in its crib. The gleeful reaction of one lawmaker, state Senator Cheryl Jacques, was telling. ''I'll take a victory on this any way I can get it," she said. Not long afterward, Jacques became executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay and lesbian advocacy organization.

Same-sex marriage proponents do themselves no favors with this win-at-all-costs, to-hell-with-democracy approach. And it is no answer to say that gay and lesbian marriage is a matter of civil rights, and no one's civil rights should be put to a vote. Whether same-sex marriage should be thought of as a civil right is precisely the question to be decided. The way to decide it fairly is to decide it democratically.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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