"Let the people decide." We have heard this cry from Gov. Mike Pence and a number of Republican members of the Indiana General Assembly when it comes to House Joint Resolution 6 — the constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage.
While Indiana already has a law that says state-recognized marriage is to be between one man and one woman, proponents of HJR 6 want to place this in the state's most sacred document, the Indiana Constitution.
The proposed amendment states: “Only marriage between one man and one woman will be valid or recognized as a marriage in Indiana. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized.”
Unless House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President David Long — both Republicans and both lawyers — convince their respective caucuses that not only is this amendment vague, but that the second sentence will almost certainly collide with the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which clearly states that no American can be denied “equal protection of the laws,” it will likely go before voters via a referendum in November 2014.
Pence is straddling the dynamic here. The echoes of his own past career of public service include his oft stated self-description: “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order.” Yet his emergence into the gubernatorial sphere finds Pence at odds with his own historic mission. He has sought separation during his 2012 campaign and his first year in office, persistently saying his priorities are jobs and education.
Yet he is set to watch his state enter perhaps the most divisive chapter in its modern history. The wink and a nod opt-in by Pence and his social conservative allies in the Indiana Senate and House is to “let the people decide.”
Now, what is wrong with the notion of letting the people decide?
We are only a year past the 2012 U.S. Senate race which cost $51 million. It ignores the lesson where Dick Lugar, Richard Mourdock and Joe Donnelly essentially lost control of their campaigns and messaging, as more than $30 million of national money spilled into the state from an array of special interest groups.
While job creation is largely agreed upon as the most emphatic mission at hand, the nation and world will get a front row seat to division and policy that half the population supports, and the other half finds regressive. HJR 6 will be debated in the Indiana General Assembly between January and March during a political lull across the nation, which will mean America’s eyes will be affixed to the Hoosier state.
The second aspect of "let the people decide" is that the people don't always get it right.
Imagine in 1953 the General Assembly attempting to write the Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson into law. This was the 1896 ruling that affirmed the notion of separate but equal schools for blacks and whites. In that era, a black legislator from the region or South Bend couldn't even find an Indiana restaurant to eat in on the way to the Statehouse.
There probably would have been ample support for a separate but equal amendment to our Constitution a year before the high court's Brown vs. Board of Education overturned the notion and set in motion the American civil rights movement.
Howard County Republican Chairman Craig Dunn writes of anti-miscegenation laws, which outlawed marriage between the races. A national poll in 1958 found 98 percent of the American people to be against interracial marriage. The Indiana General Assembly wouldn't abolish those laws until 1965, two years in advance of a Supreme Court ruling that did the same.
Dunn observes the Republican Party brought us emancipation and was the first to support women's suffrage. "Republican leaders in Congress led the intense fight to pass the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution which outlawed slavery, guaranteed equal protection under laws and secured voting rights for African-Americans respectively," Dunn observed. "Now that is the right side of history."
Times change. Morals and ethics evolve. Intolerance gives way to tolerance.
So in the first months of 2014, as Pence watches passively, the General Assembly will decide whether to amend our Constitution on marriage.
Long and Bosma tell us HJR 6 isn't even the most important issue facing our state with a persistent high jobless rate, over-populated jails and prisons, potentially 2,000 meth lab busts this year, where 40 percent of our high school graduates need to take college remediation courses, and our overall health rates as among the worst in the 50 states.
Yet they appear willing to let a third-rate issue be amended to our Constitution.
If Pence and legislative Republicans really think HJR 6 is worth the division, the outside money and a national audience, they ought to call for the elimination of that second sentence in the resolution that lawyer Bosma has flagged as a problem, then advocate its removal, pass it this year and next, and then run with the referendum on the 2016 ballot.
If you believe it, defend it. Advocate for it. Own it.