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Juliette Kayyem

Rebels at heart

New York’s gay marriage vote follows the American spirit

By Juliette Kayyem
Globe Columnist / July 4, 2011

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GET PAST the universal truths and the quest for freedom in the document we celebrate today, and it is striking how the Declaration of Independence often reads like a divorce filing. It offers over 30 criticisms of British rule, with a mere few paragraphs to the assertion of liberty. It is more negative than hopeful, more evidentiary brief than philosophical document.

While the focus is often on the Declaration’s revolutionary faith in the self-evident belief that all men are created equal, the larger bill of particulars against the crown is its animating force. Call it the stick-it-to-the-big-guy philosophy. A forgotten clause reveals the primary rebelliousness of our Founding Fathers. “He [King George] has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.” In other words, colonies should be free to decide on their own what are matters of “pressing importance,’’ and to address them without royal interference.

Last week, New York state made a declaration of its own when its legislature and governor embraced gay marriage; it was among the first to do so without a judicial prodding. To New York, the need was immediate. Both proponents and opponents of the vote found solace in history, religion, and ethics to defend their position. Is gay marriage the natural progression from the recognition that states could not prohibit interracial marriage? Or is it an unnatural and perverted reading of equality never intended by our constitutional authors?

But all these attempts to find validation through history are not only inconclusive, they minimize the true rebelliousness of the New York vote - a spirit that traces more from the Declaration than the Constitution. The New York decision reflects this quintessential American desire: simply, a leap of faith that one state may know better. And the enthusiasm of the New York vote may be as much about gay marriage as it is about invoking the rebel in us all. In Albany, they simply weren’t going take it anymore.

Let’s first take a deep breath and put the gay marriage vote in context. New York is one mere state; only a few more - including Massachusetts - have found similar rights by judicial opinion. Three dozen states legally oppose gay marriage, so critics of Governor Andrew Cuomo can find solace elsewhere. New York bolted from that tide, and chose the contrary path. In a single vote, it embraced the renegade spirit against its sister states, and reclaimed the maverick sentiment that has been monopolized by the right for the last decade.

The New York decision gave a much-needed boost to the long-denigrated notion of state’s rights, which is too often synonymous with slavery and segregation. In all realms of public policy, states are experimenting with education, environmental, and economic reform. They are providing best practices and case studies for a federal government often unable to address our needs. Sometimes those experiments can prosper in their geographic isolation; other times, as in areas of immigration enforcement or abortion rights, they may violate other constitutional guarantees. Nonetheless, the gay marriage guarantee was decidedly un-federal, as we wait, and still wait, for a president who is evolving on this issue.

The New York vote may not be as American as apple pie, but surely even ardent opponents of gay marriage - a vocal minority according to public opinion polls, and one that will not outlive a younger generation more laissez-faire about gay rights - can give a reluctant nod to the American spirit behind it. With one historic vote, New York tried to show that sometimes the desire for equality and the will of the majority are not contradictory. And, like our colonial fathers demanded so long ago, sometimes the people of one state have waited long enough and know better what they desire. Tired of seeking permission for what they believe is a self-evident truth, the New York rebels may have simply balked at waiting permission from those above who have so “neglected to attend to them” - whether an authoritarian king, an evolving president, a hostile Congress, or a silent Supreme Court.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.