By Greg Dooley
In the first decade of the twenty first century, one tug of war between progressivism and conservatism has dominated legislative, judicial and direct democratic politics across the world. Within this period, acts allowing for full, legal same sex marriages have been enacted nationally in fifteen countries including Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Uruguay and New Zealand. The first half of 2013 has witnessed even more of this pattern with proposals reaching the top of national government agendas in Andorra, Colombia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Nepal, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The question of why the acceptance of same sex marriage has taken hold in some nations, while others have struggled or even refused to address the concept, is as complicated and varied as the diversity of each country’s political electorate.
One such case can be observed in France. Caught between traditional Catholic conservatism and a desire to be a leading progressive nation in Europe, France and its capital city have recently turned into a battlefield over the debate. However, campaigning on a platform of populous socialism, France’s now president Francois Hollande promised equal marriage would stand at the top of his legislative agenda. The President delivered on his commitment on 18 May 2013 when he signed into law a bill legalizing same sex marriage throughout the country.
Yet now that the bill is law and Mr Hollande’s administration has already begun setting the path to implementation, the debate has hardly been settled. A key point of contention remains that some perceive the Constitutional Council’s decision to be tainted by judicial activism. These opponents believe the decision to allow the legislation on 17 May 2013, which is World Day Against Homophobia, as beyond coincidence and that such a monumental ruling should not be swayed by international pressure-groups.
At the same time, across the English Channel, the issue of same sex marriage has been arguably even more politically derisive in the United Kingdom. The controversial legislation continues to divide the Conservative party and is surpassed only by the debate over the UK’s place in the European Union among topics threatening the unity of the Coalition Government. Amid the impediments to the bill supported by a surprisingly large number of Tory back benchers was an amendment that would require a popular referendum be held on the issue simultaneously during the next election in 2015. The rebellious group noted that same sex marriage had not appeared in any major party’s manifesto, the coalition agreement, or the Queen’s Speech and thus the Government lacked a mandate from the electorate. Without this perceived endorsement by the people, a bill that would fundamentally alter a historical norm of society would be forced through Parliament without necessary democratic consent.
Although referendums are traditionally reserved for issues that have clear constitutional implications, the glimpse they provide into the will of a voting society is important. The contradiction between what could be passed through legislation and yet overruled via referendudm is not without precedent. Such a scenario continues to complicate the debate in the United States. Specifically, in 2008, the State of California passed legislation legalizing same sex marriages, a decision that was later upheld by the State’s Supreme Court. However, five months after the first same sex marriage certificates were issued, voters were presented with Proposition 8 which would amend the California’s Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. Although legislation passed both democratically elected chambers of the State Assembly and judicial review of the State Supreme Court, citizens of California chose to vote in favor of Proposition 8, effectively banning same sex marriages.
However, the issue in California has not stopped there. The legality of the State’s Proposition 8 is now being considered against the federal Constitution by the Supreme Court of the United States. The decision, to be handed down in June 2013, will not only have implications for marriage in California, but also for the larger nationwide debate. Despite the fact that twelve states and the District of Columbia have individually addressed and approved a variety of same sex marriage proposals, no national consensus has been established. Any decisive federal decision, therefore, could have a sweeping standardizing effect that may end up either favoring the continued proliferation of current trends or stifling the progress the issue has made in one way or another in each of the fifty states.
Even if the Supreme Court upsets the current trend of same sex marriage gaining approval on the state level, it appears the movement will continue to advance internationally. Same sex marriage does seem to gain the strongest foothold in developed democratic nations therefore, although it may take generations, it is not difficult to imagine that as liberal democratic principles are championed in developing areas of Africa and Asia, select countries may also open to the idea of marriage equality.