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By Joel P. Engardio
writer, documentary filmmaker
Religious supporters of Proposition 8, the voter initiative that banned same-sex marriages in California, might feel good now that the state’s Supreme Court has ruled that the measure can stand. But will those religious groups that are celebrating Prop 8 today regret it later when they consider the precedent that’s been set?
Prop 8 has made it a lot easier in California for a simple majority of voters to strip away the rights of an unpopular minority. What happens when it’s your time to be the unpopular minority?
History is unkind and too often repeats itself. Members of the Mormon Church, who were major supporters of Prop 8, have ancestors who experienced some of the worst religious discrimination ever faced in the United States. In the mid-19th Century they were driven by mobs from Illinois to Missouri and across the Wild West to Utah. It was wrong then to persecute Mormons for what they believed, just as it would be wrong now to try to force Mormons to accept members or marriages in their church they deem unworthy. There is freedom of religion in America for good reason. But that and other freedoms have been watered down in California thanks to Prop 8. The court now has less power to fulfill the purpose for which it was created: keep the tyranny of the majority from trampling the rights of the minority. Anyone can be a minority if enough people don’t like the way you live, worship or think.
My mother is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, an unpopular religion that was persecuted in the U.S. and abroad. They faced mob violence in 40 states when refusing to salute the flag during World War II. In Germany, they were put in the concentration camps for refusing to give the Nazi salute. Like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses vehemently oppose same-sex marriage on moral and Biblical grounds. Gays are not allowed to be Witnesses unless they live celibate and single lives. Members who insist on being in a same-sex relationship are shunned by the congregation. But none of the million Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S. supported Prop 8 because the religion mandates staying out of politics and culture wars.
Jehovah’s Witnesses proselytize door-to-door advocating a religious point of view just as Mormons do. But the choice to accept or not ends at the front door for the Witnesses. They don’t amend the constitution to force everyone to live their way. State laws are not needed to legitimize their moral views. Witnesses don’t see the state as an enforcer of a moral code. That’s the Bible’s job, they say. If you want to be in God’s Kingdom, simply live the code yourself – it’s not the Witnesses’ mission to enact laws to stop gays from marrying.
When Jehovah’s Witnesses were persecuted they fought for their First Amendment rights at the U.S. Supreme Court a record 62 times, winning 50 cases. With each win, rights were expanded for everyone. The Witnesses know it’s in their best interest that the rights apply to all, even for groups they disagree with. Now in California the opposite is happening.
Some religious organizations are celebrating a restriction of rights for a minority they disagree with – making themselves the future target of an equally discriminatory people’s amendment. Because Prop 8 diminished the court’s protective role, there will be nothing they can do other than realize they should have been more careful about what they wished for.
Joel Engardio is a writer, documentary filmmaker and civil liberties advocate. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today and on NPR and PBS. Engardio directed the award-winning PBS film KNOCKING about Jehovah’s Witnesses. He currently helps the American Civil Liberties Union communicate its message and issues through online video.