Human rights on the verge

The legalization of same-sex marriage and Washington’s okay to marijuana throws light on a permeable wall. There are human rights, and there are civil liberties. Because a human being is not inherently entitled to ganja (cannabis use isn’t the same as freedom from slavery or cruel or unusual punishment) smoking dope is a question of civil liberties and where, how and if we impose restrictions. Marriage equality transcends the boundary, a human right — all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights — and a civil liberty.

The distinction is instructive. Washingtonians are partial to liberty, but can be indifferent about a handful of rights. Can we reconcile a “yes” to marijuana with support for the death penalty, for example? In Snohomish County, 54 percent of voters supported I-502 to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, but a narrower 52 percent embraced R-74 to approve same-sex marriage. The divide reveals why a constitutional separation of powers supplants mob rule (Read: Washingtonians shouldn’t be voting on human rights in the first place.)

In October, the Herald Editorial Board strongly endorsed R 74, underlining that human rights are not static. Until the 1865 adoption of the 13th Amendment, we wrote, the U.S. Constitution, the universal touchstone for civil and democratic government, OK’d chattel slavery. Voting and civil rights legislation passed Congress less than a half-century ago. It took until Loving v. Virginia in 1967 for the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down that state’s anti-miscegenation statute which criminalized interracial marriage. The time had finally come for marriage equality.

As the Herald’s Jerry Cornfield reports, by late Thursday, marriage licenses had been issued to 24 same-sex couples in Snohomish County and 25 couples in Island County. And for many, today is wedding day.

The process has now reached its constitutional end point. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would weigh the constitutionality of California’s same-sex marriage ban. The court will also consider a section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that puts the kibosh on federal benefits for legally married same-sex couples. This will be the first time the court has considered same-sex marriage. And as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote two centuries ago, “Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.” Come springtime, we will have answers.

The timing is propitious. Tomorrow is International Human Rights Day, commemorating passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948. On Monday, Snohomish County’s newly minted Human Rights Commission is hosting a celebration on the first floor of the Robert J. Drewel Building, 3000 Rockefeller Avenue, from 12:30 to 2:30 pm. All of us, born free and equal in dignity and rights, have a stake in the question.

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