It’s hard for elected officials to say no when a parade of citizens exhorts them to let the people decide a controversial decision. How tempting it must be to acquiesce.
But it wouldn’t be leadership. It would be passing the buck.
Last spring, the council made a decision, which is their role in a representative government. They agreed to offer health insurance benefits to the domestic partners of unmarried city employees just as they do for the spouses of married city workers.
It was a gesture of fairness, made in recognition that many households today are marked by relationships other than marriage. Some feature same-sex unions for which marriage isn’t an option. Coming up with a workable definition of domestic partners was difficult, but the council rightly concluded in April that non-traditional households also need the stability and security that comes with access to affordable health care.
Although only a handful of Spokane city employees are eligible for the benefit and none has claimed it, some critics protested its potential cost. But the overriding sentiment in a debate was plain: Unmarried couples who live together, especially gay and lesbian couples, defile “family values,” no matter how strong their commitments or how long.
That was the real fuel behind an intense campaign by opponents of the new benefit plan to repeal it through a referendum. Falling short of the signature requirement to force a vote, they went to City Hall Tuesday evening, en masse, and asked the council to schedule an election anyway.
The conflict was reminiscent of a 1999 battle over adding “sexual orientation” to the city ordinance language that prohibits discrimination against certain categories of people. In that case, a proposed repeal did reach the ballot but voters upheld the council’s decision.
That was a sign of cultural growth for this generally conservative city, but how broadly that attitude is embraced is unclear. Community members who went to City Hall on Monday to appeal for a public vote on partner benefits want to test it, counting on a majority voice that’s willing to deprive minority members of equal rights and benefits.
Majority rule, however, shouldn’t always provide the final answer, even in the United States of America. Especially in the United States of America.
As the Founding Fathers recognized, letting the majority oppress the minority leads to anarchy, undermines liberty and discourages full participation in public life.
Overcoming fear and prejudice takes time. As a culture matures, it needs enlightened political leadership to guide the way. Fortunately for Spokane, its City Council had the guts to retain the reins of leadership on Tuesday.
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