Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw |

Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw

Andy Stone
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

One of the little glitches in democracy (you know: the worst system of government except for all the others that have ever been tried) is something called the “tyranny of the majority.”

That’s the problem that arises when the majority – which, democratically speaking, rules – decides to use its power to oppress a minority.

Outlawing left-handers, if you want to be ludicrous.

Enslaving black people, if you want to get serious.

Properly organized democratic systems have safeguards to protect against this kind of oppression.

But recently, we have been seeing the levers of power and the intricacies of government used for the opposite purpose: tyranny of the minority.

We might be about to see that happen – disgracefully – right here in Colorado.

In fact, it might be happening even as I write this column on Tuesday afternoon.

At issue is a proposed state law that would recognize “civil unions” – giving gay and lesbian couples legal rights similar to those of married couples.

It pretty much allows same-sex marriage without involving the messy “M” word.

Passing the bill should be a simple enough matter. Recent polls have shown that a substantial majority of Colorado voters favor giving same-sex couples full legal rights.

Now, of course, we all have to recognize that government should not run on the basis of opinion polls. But in this case, public opinion is on the side of the angels, as they say – supporting civil rights for a minority that has been denied those rights.

And the bill will do that without violating anyone’s religious rights. It’s not marriage. Churches are not involved in the process in any way.

So: Popular support; granting civil rights to a minority; protecting religious concerns.

It sounds like this new law has it all, except that a handful of Republicans (sorry to get political about it, but that’s the way it is) seem determined to delay action on the bill.

And with the Legislature due to adjourn midnight today, any delay will kill the bill.

It seems certain that if the bill makes it to the floor of the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives, it will be approved. Five Republicans have said they will vote for it – which is enough to assure passage.

The state Senate, in which Democrats have a narrow majority, approved the vote in late April. And Gov. John Hickenlooper has said he will sign it without question, so the House is the last hurdle.

It squeaked through close votes in House committees when a few Republican legislators bravely supported it.

Now it just needs to make it to the House floor for a preliminary vote then final approval today.

But Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty, who has considerable control over whether the bill moves ahead, is stubborn in his opposition.

McNulty has insisted that the Republicans have no obligation to allow a vote on the bill anytime soon.

He says there will be no special treatment for this bill.

He says the Democrats really are to blame for not getting it passed sooner.

He is saying all kinds of stuff.

But the basic fact is that this bill seeks to right a wrong – a longstanding wrong.

And so, yes, the Republicans have a moral – if not legal – obligation to allow a vote.

And, yes, this bill does deserve special treatment – if only to make up for the special mistreatment that gays and lesbians have been subjected to for so long.

And if the Democrats are to blame for taking so long, then the Republicans have the opportunity to be heroes and stand up for what is right and get this bill passed.

And so we get back to where we began: Tyranny of the minority, in which a small handful of people are able to block the clear will of the majority – in a case where justice clearly would be served by granting the majority its way.

Certainly, democracy is a messy process, and the machinery of government is complex and creaky.

At one time or another, all of us have been gladdened to see government trip over its own clumsy tentacles and fail to carry out some program that we oppose.

But that’s not what’s happening here.

In this case, the government, clumsy though it may be, actually is stumbling toward the right result, toward justice.

It’s almost there, but some wise guys have rigged a tripwire just short of the finish line.

And why? Politics.

According to an article in The Denver Post, political consultant Katy Atkinson, of Denver, said, “Democrats have put themselves in a win-win situation, so no wonder Republicans are grumpy.” If the measure passes, Atkinson said, Democrats can claim victory for one of their important causes.

And if that “important cause” just happens to be civil rights for an oppressed minority – well, so what? What difference does that make? We’re talking about political advantage here.

Even as Colorado is teetering on the edge of disgrace, voters in North Carolina were on the verge of doing the same thing – but even more so.

Voting on Tuesday, North Carolinians apparently are going to approve an amendment to the state constitution outlawing same-sex marriage and also denying any legal rights to same-sex couples in civil unions.

It is worth noting that North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, has admitted that even if the amendment passes, it likely will be reversed later.

“It’s a generational issue,” Tillis, an amendment supporter, told a student group at North Carolina State University, according to an article on the Huffington Post. “If it passes, I think it will be repealed within 20 years.”

And so Tillis is willing to stand up and vote against basic civil rights – basic human rights – even knowing that in the long run it will not stand and that he will be branded a bigot by future generations.

Now we just need to see if Colorado Republicans are eager to carry the same weight of shame into the certain future.

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