Columns » Warwick Sabin

You're as young as you think

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It's written in plain English in the Arkansas Code. Title 9-11-109 says, "Marriage shall be only between a man and a woman. A marriage between persons of the same sex is void." So why take the extraordinary step of reinforcing existing state law with a constitutional amendment? The sponsors of the ballot initiative, who call themselves the "Arkansas Marriage Amendment Committee," answer this question on their website by saying: "California and New York both have laws that prohibit same-sex marriages, yet local officials in those states have defied state law, claiming that they are unconstitutional, and they have performed same-sex marriages. By amending the Arkansas Constitution we are doing everything we can do as a state to preserve marriage as being between a man and a woman." In other words, they think the best way to fend off a constitutional challenge is to add the provision to the Constitution. I'm not sure how that will preserve the concept if it is ultimately declared unconstitutional, but at least Arkansas will be sending a message to the rest of the country. And that message is: We are old. You see, when it comes to gay marriage, the best predictor of your opinion on the subject is your age. According to a CBS News/New York Times poll cited in Hendrik Hertzberg's March 15 New Yorker column, adults under age 30 said they would favor by a 61-35 percent margin "a law that would allow homosexual couples to marry, giving them the same legal rights as other married couples." Among those age 65 and older, only 18 percent would support such a measure, and 73 percent would oppose it. With this in mind, the popularity of a gay marriage ban in Arkansas is borne out by U.S. Census figures. Arkansas is among the top 10 states in its percentage of the total population that is 65 and older (14 percent). Our median age puts us in the oldest top third. We are old, therefore we think old. From a rational standpoint, the generation gap on this issue should give amendment supporters pause. That is, the fact that younger people's attitudes diverge so sharply from those of their elders indicates that our society will be more tolerant of gay marriage in the not-too-distant future, as the younger people age. Often, such a phenomenon is called progress, and we have seen it work its magic here before. In 1956, another state constitutional amendment passed through a popular ballot initiative. Known as Amendment 44, it capitalized on emotions inflamed by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to declare that Arkansas intended to protect its prerogative to segregate by race. Because it is so difficult to remove anything from the Constitution, that embarrassing and unconstitutional provision remained in place until it was finally repealed in 1990. Knowing that we may someday have a similar change of heart on the gay marriage issue, Arkansas may want to spare itself the time, trouble, and humiliation of having to purge another backward clause out of our Constitution. Ironically, that may be an approach too mature for our mature population to accept.

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