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Guest Editorial: Marriage, traditional values and majority rule

Minnesota’s legalization of same-sex marriage has made a core truth about modern American life become clear: For better or worse, traditional values are subject to majority rule.

That’s the lesson of social change of the past several decades, starting especially in the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and accelerating to something like warp speed (in historical terms) in the 1960s.

And it’s likely to be the lesson of the next few decades to come.

Since America’s founding, the Bill of Rights has kept key freedoms beyond the majority’s reach. Presidents and their eras come and go, but the freedoms of speech, religion and the press remain.

These and the other rights enshrined in the Constitution remain the foundations of American life.

And for the first 150 years or so, those rights were matched by an unwritten but almost as foundational list of responsibilities. Actually, the word “unwritten” is not quite correct: The responsibilities were written, at times in law but perhaps most prominently in religious texts such as the Bible.

They described (and proscribed) many issues of personal morality, such as the duty to get married before having children and to avoid “sinful” behaviors and even thoughts.

And for some centuries, they commanded what looks in hindsight like near-unanimous support.

They were not, however, written into the Constitution.

That’s not the only thing that matters in 2013. But it is one thing, because where government is concerned, it means these issues of morality today are subject to majority rather than supermajority rule.

Free speech remains in Minnesota, but the rule limiting marriage to one man and one woman is about to be signed away. The first sits on the rock of the U.S. Constitution. The second was thought to have as strong a foundation; and in the spiritual sense of the Bible and religion, perhaps it does.

But in the legal sense of government sanction and approval, marriage restrictions turn out to have been built not on constitutional granite but on something more like sand.

And sand, of course, erodes in the presence of strong winds. That’s exactly what has been buffeting American life now for more than 50 years.

In Minnesota as elsewhere, the majority has been or is being convinced that allowing gay marriage won’t cause harm after all. (Just the opposite, proponents argue: It may very well do good.)

And under our system, once a majority has been convinced, they eventually can get their way.

Opponents recognized this early on and tried to put one-man, one-woman marriage into the state and federal constitutions. But in both efforts, they failed – telling indicators as to how much the once-solid majority had eroded.

Today, opponents make “slippery slope” arguments, claiming that gay marriage will lead to legalized polygamy and incest. Perhaps the courts will force that issue someday; otherwise, it’ll happen only if a majority again can be convinced.

And there’s little sign of that happening.

In Minnesota, a majority now believes that gay marriage will be a net plus, as this week’s events made clear. In contrast, support for “new frontiers” of marital freedom such as legalized polygamy is miniscule, almost certainly because Minnesotans feel polygamy would bring about net harm.

It’s unsettling to realize that what once was thought to be solid and everlasting, is not – at least in terms of government and law. But it’s the reality of modern America, where the old ways get challenged, the new ways are uncertain – and the citizens, whose common allegiance today goes only so far as the Constitution, do their best to decide.

This editorial, by Tom Dennis, was originally published as an editorial in the Grand Forks Herald, a Forum Communications publication.

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